Berger battling back to be his best
January 15, 2020
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- After battling a wrist injury, Daniel Berger is healthy and ready to compete. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Daniel Berger used to think he didn’t really love golf… he just happened to be really good at it.
But the two-time PGA TOUR winner has upgraded his love of the game over the last 18 months after a persistent injury took him away from the little white-dimpled ball he took for granted. Berger falls into the classic category of “You don’t know how much you love something till it’s gone.”
Coming off a sixth-place finish at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, where he was part of the 54-hole lead, Berger was hitting a shot at the Travelers Championship when he felt some discomfort in the index finger on his right hand. It lingered.
Berger battled through the pain and suited up for six more events that season and even forged top-15 finishes in the PGA Championship and THE NORTHERN TRUST. But the discomfort was stopping him doing his usual preparations and forced him to pull out of the BMW Championship before it began, ending his FedExCup run. The pain was now giving him issues down to the wrist. Inflammation meant only one thing could be done. Rest.
“I just couldn’t practice. I’d get to a golf tournament and hit just 50 golf balls the whole week and I just didn’t feel like I could do the preparation to where I would feel ready to go,” Berger explained. “At home I couldn’t go hit 500 balls if I wanted to. I never was able to do the things that in the past I was able to do.”
Initially, a rest didn’t sound so bad to a young man who had been around elite athletes his whole life and had been working his tail off to become one himself since before he can remember. Berger’s father Jay played top-level tennis, winning three ATP singles titles and getting as high as seventh in the world. He played in the Davis Cup for the United States and then moved to coaching, working with the U.S. Davis Cup and Olympic tennis teams and also was a director of tennis for the USTA.
Amongst this environment, young Daniel Berger thrived. “I knew since I was a young boy I would be a professional athlete. I just didn’t know what sport yet,” Berger said. His father, and Berger himself, are believers in the 10,000-hour rule. That being you need to get to 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in something to master it. So Berger’s life has been about putting in the work, and then doing more.
So the idea of a break was something of a novelty. Maybe he could enjoy some down time and a more “normal” life for a while. The 2015 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year was excited about getting in the water on his boat and doing other recreational activities that wouldn’t hamper his injury. And he did have fun … until he started to miss his previous way of life.
“In the beginning I thought it was amazing. I got to do other things,” Berger said. “But the reality is my whole life all I’ve ever known is hit balls, go to a golf tournament, compete … and suddenly you are unable to do those things you are so passionate about and it sucks.
“I have always been a firm believer of the harder you work the better you perform and prior to that I had never had a time in my career where I wasn’t able to do the things I felt like I needed to do. That was the most frustrating part. You know what you need to accomplish but physically you are unable to do that and it just eats you up.”
Daniel Berger goes back-to-back at FedEx St. Jude
The frustration and annoyance got the better of the 26-year-old. And he came back to competition in 2019 despite things not being 100%. A runner-up finish at the Puerto Rico Open in late February gave him a bit of false confidence that he could battle through things a little. But the entire season he couldn’t quite trust things and his practice time remained well down on his usual standards. He fell to 131st in the FedExCup without a top-10 after Puerto Rico and missed the FedExCup Playoffs.
Now though, Berger says he is 100%. The last few months he has returned his practice to the hours he is accustomed to. And in his five starts this season Berger has three top-25 finishes to be currently 79th in the FedExCup. The results might not yet show significant improvement, but Berger knows his ball-striking is returning toward its best. At the Sony Open last week, he was 10th in the field in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and 11th in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. And he had his first positive mark of the season in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green.
“I have put a lot of work in that I wasn’t able to do before. And that has already been the big difference in the five events I have played this season. I just need to continue to put the work in,” he said prior to The American Express this week in California.
“It’s been a blessing to come back and do what I love. I used to always say I never really liked golf; I was just good at it. But when you take some time off, I realized I really like golf a lot. My main goal now is to put myself in contention to win. It is tough out here, so you’ve got to continue to get better. I feel like this offseason I did a lot of good things and I am hitting the ball way better than I have in a long time.”
Berger is trying to get those feelings from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons where he was Rookie of the Year and won back-to-back FedEx St. Jude Classics. He’s even reverted to the old TaylorMade irons he used coming through the ranks and says it helps him “just feel more like me.”
As one of the famed Class of 2011, Berger has also drawn motivation from what Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth have already achieved in the game, knowing he’s always been able to compete on their level. It makes the idea of winning a FedExCup and major championships even more attainable. And watching the recent Presidents Cup on television – two years after he secured the clinching point for the U.S. Team at Liberty National – also put a fire in his belly.
“I watched every single shot … and I never watch golf. But I love team sports and I love rooting for anything that’s American,” Berger said. “It is disappointing not to be there but obviously I didn’t deserve to be. To see those guys go out there and play the way they did was impressive and it is certainly motivating.
“There are a lot of young guys making a name for themselves and I think you will see 10 or 15 guys playing on the teams for the next 10 or 15 years just like you saw with the Phil’s and Tiger’s. I want to be part of that.”
Now that he’s back fit and healthy, there’s a good chance he will be.