Daniel Berger still doesn’t think he has a chance of making the U.S. Ryder Cup team—but the cocky 23-year-old didn’t think he’d qualify for the season-finale Tour Championship, either. One might now lead to another.
Berger birdied the 71st hole of the BMW Championship to finish T-10 in the FedEx Cup playoff event and move up from 31st to 26th in the standings, earning a spot at East Lake. Now he has to do enough in Atlanta to pull a Billy Horschel á là 2014 and sneak off with a win in Atlanta to convince U.S. captain Davis Love III that he would be a better pick than Bubba Watson, the No. 7 player in the world, among others.
“Obviously, I want it really bad, but the reality is … I honestly don’t know if I win [the Tour Championship], I get picked,” Berger said when he was home in Jupiter, Fla., collecting himself last week. “I see Bubba. I feel like it’s already kind of a done deal, but it does mean a lot to me [to be considered].”
The fact that Love invited Watson to the team’s informal practice sessions over the weekend at Hazeltine National is an indication that Berger’s instincts might be right. Berger is also going, along with three other potential picks: Justin Thomas, Jim Furyk and Watson.
Love knows all about Berger, citing his consistency, top-10s (six this season), stats and the fact he would have ranked higher in Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup points had he not missed six weeks because of a shoulder injury this summer. He and Thomas have similar appeal. “[Berger] and Justin add youthful enthusiasm and some energy,” Love said.
The case for Berger starts with his win in this year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. Berger shot 67 on Sunday to beat an all-star cast of Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Brooks Koepka by three strokes, with Player of the Year favorite Dustin Johnson finishing fifth.
It was a statement victory, but there are other justifications for Berger’s pick. In terms of FedEx points this season, he outperformed two of Love’s first three captain’s picks, Rickie Fowler and J.B. Holmes. But the real case for Berger lies in the fact that the U.S. team needs fresh blood. Koepka is the only first-timer on the roster. And American Ryder Cup rookies, since 2010, have a higher winning percentage than veterans.
Berger might be considered brash for the establishment, but so was Patrick Reed—and Reed went 3-0-1 at Gleneagles with a 1-up victory over Henrik Stenson in singles. The competitive edge that Berger shows was passed down by his tennis pro father, Jay, who reached No. 7 in the world, and honed as a teenager playing against tour pros at The Dye Preserve in Jupiter.
“It’s being brought up in that environment,” Berger said. “I’m so competitive, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, nobody really scares me.”
That includes Mickelson. Berger playfully called him “Philip” at the FedEx-St. Jude, knowing Phil didn’t like being called his given name.
“I’m not scared of Jason Day or Rory McIlroy,” Berger said. “I feel like I thrive under those circumstances. I’m not scared to hit a good shot to close out a match.”
In Berger’s mind, he has already taken out McIlroy in singles. In the final round of the 2015 BMW Championship, Berger was paired with McIlroy and shot 69 to Rory’s 70 to finish second behind Day, qualify for the Tour Championship and ultimately beat out Thomas for Rookie of the Year honors.
As Berger told me, “You don’t need four or five years of experience to play well in a Ryder Cup.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Sept. 19, 2016 issue of Golf World.