PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Jordan Spieth referred to The Players Championship as one of the hardest tournaments to win.
Kyle Reifers had no idea it would be this hard just to play in it.
Reifers was among 25 players who gathered on the lawn Wednesday outside the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, all of them presented as "rookies" because they are taking part in golf's richest tournament for the first time.
The 32-year-old Reifers is not the oldest first-timer in The Players Championship this year. With his pedigree (former No. 1 amateur in the world) and early success out of Wake Forest (he won the first Nationwide Tour event he played), he just never imagined having to wait nine years.
"Crazy, isn't it?" he said with a smile. "I thought it was going to be easy."
The path sure looked that way. Reifers, who grew up caddying at Muirfield Village, finished up his college career by winning the Monroe Invitational in 2004, the Northeast Amateur at Wannamoisett a year later and being named to the Walker Cup team in 2005 that featured an entire team that earned PGA Tour cards.
"He was one of the guys in college who I thought was pretty good," said J.B. Holmes, a Walker Cup teammate. "Then he won those two big amateur events and I thought, 'Wow. This guy is better than I thought.'"
And it got even better for Reifers. After graduating from Wake in 2006, he made it through a Monday qualifier for the Chattanooga Classic on the Nationwide Tour, shot 61 on the final day and beat Brandt Snedeker in a playoff.
He was diagnosed with syncope a few months later after passing out on his way to a restaurant in Minnesota, had to go through Q-school and made a 20-foot putt on the final hole to earn one of the last PGA Tour cards.
Yes, this should be easy. And then reality as a PGA Tour rookie set in. Reifers got in only three tournaments the first two months. He had a three-month stretch where he didn't cash a check. And it was back to the minor leagues for four years before he got back to the PGA Tour, and then back to the Web.com Tour.
Two years ago, Reifers was at a crossroads.
Starting the 2014 season, for the first time since he turned pro, he had no status anywhere. He wrote a letter to Web.com chief executive David Brown, who arranged for an exemption into a tournament in Chile. He tied for third, almost as critical as his victory seven years earlier. Reifers parlayed that start into two more third-place finishes, two other top 10s and a return to the PGA Tour.
"You feel like you should be on tour, and you don't even have a tee time on the Web.com Tour," he said. "It's not that I wasn't working, but the dedication ... it's a fine line. I think you get complacent and say, 'It'll happen.' But it doesn't happen without hard work."
With his third chance, he made it work. He kept his card, advancing to the third stop in the FedEx Cup playoffs. That's what assured him a spot in The Players Championship. The next stop is getting into his first major.
It's not the road he expected when he turned pro and won his first start. That happens to a lot of amateur stars.
But at least he made it — finally.
"It's a crazy game, and I feel a lot better for it," Reifers said. "I would never want to script it like this. You see guys complaining out here all the time. But when you you're down to one tee time in Chile, and you fly 10 hours to get there, and this could make or break whether you play golf, you appreciate that. It happened for a reason. And it will be sweeter when I do — hopefully — win."