Golf

Daniel Berger is back at Honda Classic after memorable finish last year

Daniel Berger hits from the bunker on the sixth hole during the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth on Thursday, May 21, 2015.
Daniel Berger hits from the bunker on the sixth hole during the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth on Thursday, May 21, 2015. Star-Telegram

There’s no doubt some of golf’s biggest names are competing at the Honda Classic beginning Thursday and running through Sunday. To name just a few, try Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.

One of the names in the field not quite so recognizable is Daniel Berger, who finished second a year ago in a two-hole playoff with Padraig Harrington.

Berger’s gallery this week on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens might not have the quantity of followers as those of the well-known names, but it is more than likely Berger’s fans will be the loudest on the course.

That’s because Berger was born in Plantation and now lives in Jupiter, so he is a true-blue South Floridian with friends, family and the local community vociferously rooting him on. During last year’s final round, the chant of “BERGER … BERGER … BERGER” repeatedly echoed down the fairways on the final day and increased in volume during the two-hole playoff.

Suddenly, the chants went silent when Berger assured himself of losing the playoff by splashing his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th.

However, after just a few seconds, the Berger chant surprisingly started up again. Although Berger was disappointed and knew he had lost, it sounded like a celebration was going on, but it was just the fans’ way of showing their appreciation and saying thank you to him.

Berger couldn’t help but turn toward them and smile.

So, with many fond memories, Berger comes back this year to visit PGA National again.

“I’ve grown up playing PGA National and a lot of my buddies play out here,” he said. “It’s just fun to see all my friends come back out and support me.”

Talking about the familiar setting of the Champion Course, Berger looked back — although not that far back, since he’s only 22 — and remembered playing there as a teenager. “Just to be on the range, and I’ve been on that driving range a million times in my life when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, it just brings out those memories.

“Mostly with my friends, coming out here, playing money games and just having a good time and just enjoying the course.”

Berger, the son of former well-known tennis professional Jay Berger, had a confession when asked about some of his earliest PGA National memories.

“I had a couple of buddies,” he recalled, “and we always used to sneak out here and we wouldn’t pay the dues. We would just grab a cart and go. I mean, I don’t think they would like that, but we did it anyway. Late afternoon, right around sunset, playing nine holes right before it got dark.”

Many of the players on the PGA Tour are fairly stern-faced and tight-lipped when they compete, but not Berger. He adheres to the relax-and-enjoy style of golf.

“Keeping the expectations low is really important to me,” he said.

Then, after some consideration, he added with a smile, “Obviously, I care some. Heck, we’re playing for $9 million here. Yeah, I care. But I’m almost tricking myself, pretending like it doesn’t matter.”

Looking back at last year’s playoff loss, Berger considered it more of a learning experience than a disappointment.

In addition he picked up a good friend in Harrington, the guy who defeated him.

“We’ve been to dinner five or 10 times since then,” Berger said with a laugh, “and he doesn’t let it go. He’ll remind me every time that he won the Honda Classic.”

Who pays for the dinner? That would be Harrington, according to Berger.

“He buys and says thanks for the winner’s check that he got.”

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