The Commercial Appeal
Kid you not
Pressure? What pressure? As several of the world’s best golfers took aim at 23-year-old Daniel Berger Sunday in the rain-delayed final round of the Fed-Ex St. Jude Classic, he steadfastly refused to let their resumes — and shot-making — knock him from his perch atop the leaderboard.
That steely resolve allowed Berger, son of former world top-10 tennis pro Jay Berger, to capture the first PGA Tour title of his fledgling career at TPC Southwind with a 67 for a total of 13-under 267.
Berger withstood a late charge by world No. 6 and 2012 FESJC champion Dustin Johnson, repeated challenges from 17th-ranked Brooks Koepka and multiple runs by World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson and veteran Steve Stricker, a 12-time winner on tour. Koepka (66), Stricker (67) and Mickelson (67) finished three shots back at 270 and Johnson fired a 63 — the best round of the tournament — to post a 271.
“When you’ve got guys like (Mickelson and Johnson) following you, you never know what can happen,” Berger said. “I kept grinding and never gave up and, in the end, it was good enough ... it’s a day I’ll never forget.”
In a final round delayed three hours by rain and thunder, Berger, the PGA Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year, refused to be intimidated. He never lost the lead despite briefly being tied by Koepka early in the round. In fact, he never trailed in the tournament after taking the 36-hole lead at 9-under 131.
There were, however, shaky moments Sunday.
When his four-foot putt for par lipped out at No. 10, he dropped to 10-under, one shot better than Johnson. Mickelson used the opportunity to also get to 9-under.
But Berger, a gritty player with a slightly unorthodox swing, answered with an eight-foot birdie putt on No. 12. He extended his lead to three strokes on No. 14 when he drained a 32-foot birdie putt on a hole he double-bogeyed in the third round.
When Koepka tapped in for birdie on 17 to trim the lead to two strokes, Berger responded again. He rolled in a 22-foot birdie putt on No. 15 to re-establish a three-shot margin and maintained the cushion with pars on the final three holes.
“I hung in there (after the bogey),” Berger said. “You had Phil making a charge and had Dustin already posting a (9-under), so I tried to do everything I could to stay patient. I knew when I got to (Nos.) 14, 15 and 16 there were some birdie opportunities.”
At 23 years and two months, Berger became the second-youngest champion in the FESJC’s 59-year history and denied Mickelson, 45, and Stricker, 49, the opportunity to become the first 40-and-over winner on the tour this season.
“He played some great golf,” Mickelson said of Berger. “And he played a really good back nine.”
Berger posted his fourth top-10 finish of the season after finishing in the top 10 six times last season, including two runner-up showings.
“I’ve played so well the last six to seven weeks, it was just a matter of time before I had a real, real shot at winning,” he said. “And I feel like those experiences last year really helped me get to where I am right now.”
Much like he did Saturday — when he briefly lost sole possession of the lead with the double bogey at 14 — Berger overcame trouble Sunday on the front nine. After playing the first four holes at oneover par and allowing Koepka to catch him at 9-under, Berger responded. He calmly drained an 18-foot birdie putt at the par-4 sixth to build a two-stroke lead over Koepka and a fast-closing Johnson.
Johnson began his charge with a birdie at No. 7 and played the final 12 holes in 8-under par, including an eagle 3 on 16 and chip in for birdie at 18.
Johnson said the afternoon rains softened the course and allowed him to play aggressively.
“You could attack,” said Johnson, who fired a 6-under 29 on the back nine. “You could attack the flags with the soft conditions and the wind not blowing. In my position, I had to be (aggressive). I had to make something happen if I wanted a chance.”
For Johnson, it was his third top-10 finish at TPC Southwind in five appearances and good preparation for this week’s U.S. Open.
“The game is actually pretty good,” he said. “I’ve played good all year. I’m looking forward to next week.”
Mickelson posted his third top-three finish at Southwind in four years and, like Johnson, will enter this week’s major — the only one he has yet to win — with momentum.
“It was important for me to get into contention and feel the heat and to just get my game feeling sharp heading into (the U.S. Open),” he said. “I’m coming out of this week with a lot of positives.”