JERSEY CITY, N.J. — “What are we playing for?” the precocious 13-year-old asked the golf professional who’d just finished a competitive playing career.
Jay had always been a tennis guy. He was once the seventh-ranked male player in the world, a doubles partner of Andre Agassi, a three-time ATP champion, two-time Davis Cup team member and a man who would become the United States Olympic coach.
Golf was out of his realm of expertise, but Daniel had taken a keen interest in the game. Rather than attempt to transfer his tennis wisdom onto the second-oldest of his four children, Jay sought a proper instructor.
He’d heard about Doyle from Ivan Lendl, a mutual friend who’d morphed from the world’s best tennis player into an excellent golfer. So Jay brought Daniel to The Dye Preserve, where Doyle was working as an assistant pro.
“I watched him hit for maybe five or 10 minutes,” Doyle recalls. “I didn’t even say anything, I just watched. You could tell he had the hand-eye coordination. He knew what he was doing.”
Doyle wanted to see whether he could bring it to the course, so he asked Daniel to join him for 18 holes.
That’s when the 13-year-old kid asked about the stakes.
“You have to have a really strong belief in yourself,” he admits. “I do, because I’ve put in the work and done everything I can to be successful.”
Asked whether the lines are blurred between his confidence and cockiness, he acquiesces. “A little bit. I tend to think I’m pretty good at things I’m not good at. I think I can beat Matt Kuchar in pingpong. Deep down, I know I can’t. But I keep telling him I’m going to beat his ass. If that’s cocky, then yeah, I’m cocky.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“He’s always been that way,” acknowledges Brooks Koepka, his teammate for one year at Florida State and again on this year’s Presidents Cup team. “But if you’re not cocky, there’s something wrong with you. Everybody out here is confident and thinks they’re the best. That’s what he thinks — and he should.”
Last year, Berger was battling Phil Mickelson for the title in Memphis — the same Mickelson who at the time was twice his age and owned 42 career PGA Tour victories to his zero.
While the acerbic lefthander ribbed his young peer for claiming the Rookie of the Year title without winning a tournament, Berger punched right back, referring to him formally as “Philip.”
“He says only his wife calls him that,” Berger said on Saturday of that week. “I can’t call him that until I win on the PGA Tour.”
The next day, he won.
Those old recollections of losing cash and surrendering his iPod still ring true for Berger. If there’s a criticism of this era’s growing group of 20-something superstars, it’s that PGA Tour riches might have forced a complacency that never developed in previous generations.
That notion can be easily argued, of course, and Berger is doing his part to prove that anything other than winning is an unsatisfactory option.
“If I finish 10th, I’m pissed at a 10th-place finish,” he says. “If I finish fifth, I’m pissed at a fifth-place finish.”
One of the most memorable moments from this summer’s golf schedule occurred at the Travelers Championship. On the first hole of a playoff, Spieth holed a bunker shot for birdie, airborne rakes and wedges prompting pandemonium among the raucous gallery.
Often forgotten is the fact that once decorum was restored, Berger nearly drained his own 35-foot birdie attempt.
“He put beautiful speed on it,” Spieth sighed afterward. “At about the halfway point, I’m like, ‘Is he really going to make this?'”
As Thomas explains of Berger, “He hates to lose. He’s told me before, he hates losing to me and he doesn’t like it when we’re playing well, because he wants to beat us. It takes a man to admit that.”
Jay Berger insists he never pressured his son to become a professional golfer, never had to implore him to work harder or practice more.
He does, though, take some indirect credit for Daniel’s competitive desire.
“I think his genetic makeup is to be a competitor,” Jay says. “I think he has a very healthy relationship with competing. That’s the way he was brought up. It was never about the winning — it was about the process behind it, trying to get better.”
Berger’s confidence, cockiness and full array of moxie will be on display this week, as he competes for the red, white and blue for his first time as a pro.
It’s a feeling his father already knows, a legacy being passed down from one generation to the next. Now he’ll finally get a taste of what he’s wanted for so long.
“I’ve got chills just thinking about it,” Berger says. “I love to have teammates that rely on you, and I love to rely on teammates. For me, this is the pinnacle. Team golf, it can’t get any better.”