State of the Hogs: Tag Ridings

Tag Ridings has been on fire over the last six weeks on the PGA Tour. publisher Clay Henry spent some time with Ridings this week.

Bill Woodley wasn't surprised when he turned on the television last month to see Tag Ridings going low in the final round at the Michelin Championship in Las Vegas.

Nothing Ridings does on the PGA Tour surprises his old Arkansas golf coach. Woodley has been singing Ridings' praises for a long time, even before he made it to the tour.

"I knew all Tag needed was to get out there," Woodley said. "If he could get there, he would be great."

Ridings has talent, but it's the intangibles that make him special, according to Woodley.

"He's very, very tough," Woodley said. "He won't be overwhelmed by the big arena. In college, he went head to head with Tiger Woods at Olympic Club (in San Francisco) and beat him to win the tournament. He's never been scared of anyone.

"Hitting it into trouble or the trees never bothered him, either. He was smart and good mentally. He'd get it back in play and avoid the catastrophe. I always called him Tagamet — you know, the ulcer medicine — because if I saw him in the trees from two holes away, I didn't worry because I knew he'd handle it fine and still get it home with a good number."

Woodley remembers the time Ridings caught another collegian fudging on his ball mark on the greens, inching it closer to the hole each time.

"Most guys stay away from that kind of controversy because calling it will usually affect your game, too," Woodley said. "Tag stepped up and threatened to beat the crap out of the guy if he did it again. He's going to do what's right."

And, he's not going to back off when he's on a birdie streak. Ridings made 11 birdies while shooting 61 in the final round at Las Vegas, making $298,666 while missing a playoff by one stroke. Even bigger, he shot 64 in the final round last weekend at the Chrysler Championship in Innisbrook, Fla.

That 7-under finish last week in the final regular event of the year earned Ridings $120,000, and $623,262 on the season, to push him 13 spots to No. 125 on the money list, the last slot on the all-exempt list for 2005. The only way he loses that spot is if European star Padraig Harrington, playing with a special invitation, wins the Tour Championship this week where the top 30 end the season.

It's been a whirlwind finish to the season for Ridings, playing this year on a medical exemption after back, neck and shoulder injuries have put him on the shelf for most of the last 18 months after making it to the big tour with a great 2002 on the Nationwide Tour.

"I don't know that I'm all the way healthy still," said Ridings this week from his new Fayetteville home. "But I'm better. My back is okay and my neck is better. I'm finally without pain."

The pain didn't go away until the second week in September. Ridings has been on fire ever since.

"It wasn't so much that I was in pain," Ridings said. "I can stand pain. I just didn't have full range of motion. In golf that's a big deal and I didn't have it. I didn't have the range of motion with my right shoulder."

Sitting at home last year was nearly as bad as the pain.

"To finally get your opportunity to play for those gigantic purses and against the best players — not to be able to play was very hard emotionally and mentally," he said. "I not only couldn't swing a club, I could hardly walk. I just basically sat on the couch for months. There's not much you can do with a herniated disc. To have that happen to start out my rookie year was very tough."

When he finally was well, he took advantage of his opportunity. His putter has been afire over the last six weeks. His overall stats bear that out. Ridings, always a solid putter, finished the season ranked 27th in putting average (1.751 putts on greens hit in regulation), 12th in putts per round (28.30) and 15th in birdie conversion (32 percent on greens hit). His final round scoring average of 69.50 is second on tour.

Ridings has other weapons. He's long with the driver, but not always straight. He ranks 13th in average driving distance (301.0 yards), but only 182nd in accuracy (56.4 percent of fairways hit). "He's always been a pretty good puttter," Woodley said. "He could get it in the hole."

Ridings said, "That's been a consistent and stable club for me and my poor putting rounds have become fewer."

He's been happy with the results from a Precise Golf stainless steel putter that is a copy of the old Ping Ansers.

"It's made of high quality steel and is expensive, probably in the $250 range," he said. "They let me design a new one and it's supposed to be here Friday. I'm excited about that."

Before he spends too much time with the new putter, he'll get some rest.

"I'm not doing much," he said. "I'm going to slowly get back into working out. First, I just want to rest, stay loose, calm and happy."

The happy part is obvious and not just from the recent big checks. He'll marry Brenda Stork on Dec. 18. They'll make their home in Fayetteville. He won't be like most of the Tour players who base out of Florida or Arizona.

"I've been living and traveling out of Fayetteville for 10 years," said Ridings, who earned a UA marketing degree in 1997. "Doesn't make much sense to make a big change at this point in my life. Fayetteville is great. I spend a lot of time at Fayetteville Country Club and the new Blessings (Golf Club). Great places to play and practice as far as I'm concerned. I love The Blessings, the course and the practice facility."

There won't be any 61s at The Blessings any time soon.

"It's hard, but it's fair," Ridings said. "I shot 1-under on the back out there not long ago. If you drive it straight, you are fine."

His 61 at Vegas could have been in the 50s if he'd just played the par fives a little better.

"I didn't birdie two of the par fives and I didn't birdie the drivable par four," Ridings said. "I also missed a 10-foot eagle putt on one of the fives. I totally misread it."

All of that balanced out when he chipped in for birdie at his 11th and 13th holes. Then, he birdied the last four holes, including at a 260-yard, par three, his 17th hole.

"I wasn't even on the (leader) board until my 17th hole and I didn't see it then," Ridings said. "I birdied the 18th and they told me in the scorer's tent that I better stick around because there might be a playoff.

"I said, ‘Playoff for what?' Almost was in it. Missed by one. I went to the range to stay loose. The TV guys did an interview with me. That was fun. I love talking to the TV guys. I tend to ramble a bit, but I'll get better at it and learn when to stop. It was totally fun."

Hopefully, he'll get a lot of practice. Woodley thinks he'll be doing interviews from the winner's circle soon.

"I don't think he'll require the learning curve to win," Woodley said. "When he gets in contention, he won't be afraid to bring it home."

Ridings hopes that is correct.

"I haven't been in the last group yet," he said. "But I know the way to go low. You do it from behind. You get a conservative front nine, and then go for it on the back nine. You have nothing to lose and you go for everything. That's the way I did it both times in the last month. Wasn't on the leader's board either time. It's better to wait to do it on the back nine because you have your streak and you don't have any time left to just try to hang on."

Woodley has plenty of Ridings stories. He said Tag invented more than a few clever sayings.

"One of the ones I still use is the ‘cat,'" Woodley said. "It's a catastrophic bad shot that costs you more than a bogey. I've always said that if Tag avoids ‘cats,' then he'll be in contention. All of my players since Tag came up with that just refer to doubles and triples as ‘cats.'"

Ridings laughs about that.

"I was the king of the one-putt bogey," Ridings said. "I bet I probably have the record for one-putt birdies in my college career."

That was because of an errant driver caused by a swing flaw that has now been corrected.

"He laid it off at the top, got the club pointed left of target," Woodley said. "He also tended to hang back on his right side too much through the ball. That also is the cause of his back problems. I know. I've got the same thing and it has given me back problems all my life. Too much torque on the back when you hang back like that."

Ridings laughed again.

"I've only heard that about one million times from Coach," he said. "He's right. I'm getting better on that. But I've got a long torso and short legs and arms. It's harder to get the club on plane unless you have long arms and long legs. Golf is meant for guys with long arms and legs. Hal Sutton is like me, short arms and long torso.

"Part of my problem is because of my body. That causes my injury problems and then my injuries cause swing problems. They go together. But I've worked on my swing and I think my back will be better because of it."

No question, his swing is sorted out. If he stays healthy, who knows what he can do on the PGA Tour next year.

"There is never an end to what you can do in golf," he said. "It's a funny sport. You can achieve some goals real quick like I did at the end of this year when I got lucky, then you can change your goals and do better next year. I've achieved some minor goals and I want to go to another level next year. There is a lot more out there for me."

That's what Bill Woodley has been saying for quite some time.

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