FORT WORTH, Texas – First, Daniel Berger put on the plaid jacket that has been awarded to each winner at Colonial since the early 1950s. Then he received a belt buckle, befitting this city’s motto as “Where the West Begins.” Then the big check, of course. And finally the Leonard Trophy, the 42-inch, 55-pound piece of hardware that probably requires a remodel of every recipient’s trophy case.
Berger stood on the 18th green at Colonial on Sunday afternoon, the newest champion of the Charles Schwab Challenge thanks to his one-hole playoff win over Collin Morikawa. He held the trophy high in the air. A handful of photographers snapped his picture.
Near the clubhouse, a couple of people clapped. Other than that … well, it’s how it will be for a few weeks now. While the taste of victory is always sweet, this one Sunday was definitely a unique flavor.
“A little different for sure,” Berger said, “but in the end, I was holding the trophy – and that’s all that matters to me.”
In this most unusual of weeks for the PGA TOUR and its return to golf, Colonial found a winner who somehow managed to stay hot during the three-month long suspension of this season. Berger’s last three starts before the conoravirus pandemic changed everything? A T-9 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a T-5 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and a T-4 at The Honda Classic. Scoring-wise, he rolled into Cowtown with 24 consecutive rounds under par.
In retrospect, we should’ve seen this coming, but given a field with so many big names, including the world’s top-five ranked players, it might’ve been easy to overlook a guy who ranked 107th in the world and 45th in the FedExCup, and whose last TOUR win came three years ago – prior to a wrist injury that developed in 2018 and eventually put him on a Major Medical Extension entering this season.
But he obviously found something before the break, and he didn’t lose it while back home in Jupiter, Florida. Entering the day two shots off the lead, he made his move with three birdies in his first eight holes, including both par 3s on the front side. He never wavered from his mindset starting out Sunday.
“I just kept telling myself, why not me today?” Berger said.
Despite the new environment, the testing protocols, the social distancing rules and the lack of fans due to safety and health concerns, Berger never felt really out of sorts this week. He had rented a house in the neighborhood and could basically walk to the course. His uncle came into town and cooked his breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.
He did not venture out anywhere else. If he wasn’t at the course, he was at the house. Nowhere else.
“I thought about the virus very few times this week,” he said. “You know, it’s been such a big part of our lives for the last two months, and I feel like I just tried to do everything I can to be safe, and that’s all you really can do. You wash your hands, you don’t touch your face, you wear a mask when you can, you social distance, and obviously we got tested early in the week, so I knew I was healthy before I got here.
“We had the temperature readings before we got on-site every single day. I knew that all of the employees and staff that were here were doing the same thing. I felt completely safe.”
His game was completely safe, too – especially after his one hiccup of the day at the par-4 ninth when he found a greenside bunker and couldn’t get up-and-down. Once the back nine, Berger was bogey-free while sprinkling in a couple of birdies … including the pivotal one at the par-4 18th with a 10-1/2 foot putt.
On-site to watch it was the group scorer, sitting in a white foldable chair that was the only one at the hole (wonder how much that seat would’ve gone for on the secondary market?). There was also the cameraman up in the tower behind the green, along with a few people around the perimeter. Oh, and Jim Nantz flying solo in the CBS booth.
Berger had just gone to 15 under with a final-round 66 and was now the man to beat with six players still on the course. You could’ve heard a pin drop. But then, Berger isn’t one likely to hear his name chanted anyway, even though it should be, considering he’s a two-time TOUR winner and played on the U.S. Team that steamrolled the International Team in the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National.
Sunday’s win comes against the deepest field in tournament history – and it sends a message that Berger is healthy now and ready to get reclaim some of the territory he had carved out on golf’s landscape before his wrist problems.
“There was so many times today where I could have given it up or let the pressure get to me,” Berger said, “but I hung in there and I played practically some of the best golf I’ve played the last six years the last five holes today.”
He still had to win a playoff, though, after Morikawa failed to convert a 6-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that could’ve won the tournament. Berger had lost each of his first two playoffs, including the 2017 Travelers Championship when Jordan Spieth holed a shot from the bunker.
It’s the kind of scar tissue that can pay dividends in these situations, especially against a youngster such as Morikawa, making just his 21st TOUR start since turning pro.
Morikawa started the playoff at the par-4 17th with an errant drive that finished under a tree, forcing him to hit a low runner with his approach. Berger went from the fairway to just over the green. In the end, each had short par putts to convert. After his chip shot, Berger wanted to putt out and put the pressure on Morikawa to keep the playoff alive. He checked with Mark Russell, the TOUR’s Vice President of Rules and Competition, to make sure he can go ahead and finish.
“I was just curious whether could I finish out or did I have to wait for Collin to go ahead because I wanted to knock that one in before Collin had that 3-footer coming up,” Berger said. “I just wanted to clarify before I did do that, and Mark said it was OK, so I went ahead and did that.”
When Morikawa missed, Berger shook his caddie’s hand – OK, it’s not proper social distancing but you can forgive them this one time – and drew a sigh of relief. It had taken a while to get back in the winner’s circle, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of celebration he expected once he did, but he’s back now.
“The atmosphere in my opinion was fantastic, even though there weren’t any fans out there,” Berger said. “You knew that millions of people were watching at home, and that was just enough for me.”
More than enough, as it turned out.