Golf is easy -- maybe even easier than baseball -- to reduce to numbers on a page and statistics in a database. We can look at our databases and very easily guess who has won the most tournaments, and in most cases those guesses are correct. However, as sport has proven since the beginning of its inception, transforming everything into squiggles and lines on a page is to miss so many things that should not be missed.
Daniel Berger wants the ball. He wanted it on Sunday on the final hole at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am where he turned double on the famous par-5 in Round 3 into eagle (and the win) in Round 4. He's always wanted it. And when you combine this unusual desire with a statistical profile that is among the best in the game, you get a great player who wins at a healthy clip between 2% and 3%, an underrated number over the course of his career.
I don't know that this desire to have the ball in the waning moments of a game or event is unusual because I have experience, but I do know it's unusual simply from hearing other players talk about it. It certainly looks uncomfortable to be tied for the lead standing out over the Pacific Ocean knowing that if you hook something at all you're completely cooked.
It's rarer than you think for a golfer to crave that position. There are hordes of tremendous talents on the PGA Tour that play much better golf than it appears they do on television. There are very, very few who truly desire to have to draw a 3-wood into the Pacific with a four-time major winner and three former No. 1 amateurs in the world staring at them while they do it.
Gary Woodland, who won the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach discussed this idea after his major victory there. He was, of course, talking about a major championship, but the same concept applies, if only on a smaller scale than it did when Woodland won Pebble.
"I think the big deal is to enjoy the pressure," Woodland said. "Obviously, it's an uncomfortable situation leading in a major championship after 36 holes, after 54 holes. But I kept telling myself, even this morning, to enjoy this moment. Enjoy the pressure. Enjoy the stress. Enjoy being uncomfortable. And don't shy away from it, embrace it."
You hear this concept a lot out on tour, but rarely do you see it personified like we saw with Berger on the final hole when he faded his drive off the ocean a cool 276 yards and hit what he later called the best 3-wood of his life 253 yards to set up the eagle putt. All of this a day after hitting one out of bounds on the same hole!
"I wanted to be as aggressive as possible and I would rather go down swinging than making a conservative swing that doesn't end up really well," Berger said.
"I think the biggest thing is playing fearlessly. You can step up there and be concerned with all the different outcomes and all the different places that ball can go, but in the end it's just golf. It's just a golf shot, and if you can step up there and kind of free your mind and be fearless, then you have such a better opportunity to hit a good shot," he added.
"I've been in this situation before, coming down the last hole, having to hit a good shot, sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't, but you really have to be bold and I feel like did I that today."
This doesn't mean that Berger is always going to play well. Over the course of their careers, Berger has actually been slightly worse than Tony Finau in terms of raw strokes gained when they enter Sunday in contention. But if you watch them play and listen to them talk, there certainly seems to be a different approach.
And maybe this is simply a commentary on how we as sports fans enjoy the rhetoric from somebody like Berger. He talks like an assassin. Like a modern-day Robert Horry if Robert Horry hit a nasty butter cut on repeat all over the world. He talks like he enjoyed having the ball late on Sunday at Pebble and can't wait until it's in his hands again.
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"Winning a golf tournament just feels like you're having a heart attack on every hole," Berger said. "I love that feeling of that pressure and, I wouldn't call it anxiety but I would call it excitement. I didn't get overly pressing. I kind of just stayed patient. And I didn't hit a ton of amazing golf shots coming down the stretch until the last two or three holes, but I did enough and that's what it took."
Maybe this is the same thing everyone says, but for some reason when Berger says it, I actually believe it. Again, the numbers are not staggering -- though his +0.12 strokes gained vs. expected when entering Sunday in the top five, according to Data Golf, is better than most stars (including Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas) -- but Berger has grown into a real leaderboard presence at big events.
He may get a chance on an even bigger stage later this year. Berger moved into the No. 8 position in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings this week, just behind Patrick Reed. Berger has never been on a Ryder Cup team, but he did go 2-1-0 at the 2017 Presidents Cup and handled Si Woo Kim 2 and 1 in a Sunday singles match to clinch the event for the Americans.
And if Berger is in that moment in a massive spot like a Ryder Cup later on this year, you can set the statistics aside (I can set the statistics aside) and enjoy the show because Berger clearly loves putting it on late when it often counts the most.