July 16, 2024

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Daniel Berger continues to struggle with closing out wins despite playing at top-tier level

4 min read
Daniel Berger continues to struggle with closing out wins despite playing at top-tier level

Daniel Berger labored toward building a lead that seemed insurmountable at last week’s Honda Classic. A five-stroke advantage with just 18 holes to play had, at least in recent history, been impervious to defeat —  but all of that came crashing down before his final round was even halfway over. Not only did Berger become the first PGA Tour player of the last eight to hold a five-stroke 54-hole lead and not go on to win, he didn’t even finish second or third.

After his gruesome 74 in the finale that included just one putt made from longer than 29 inches, Berger chalked the day up to what all great players who have bad days chalk things up to: golf.

“Today was a good learning experience,” said Berger. “I was prepared and ready to play well today, and I just didn’t hit the shots I need to hit. That’s the way golf goes. There are plenty of guys that hit great shots today, and that’s why they’re winning the golf tournament. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the game.”

I tend to agree with the player in situations like this one, especially when that player has a nice resume and a good history of winning. But I was curious if there’s something more there with Berger. Statistically, he’s as good as they come. Almost any window of time you want to look at since the start of 2020 includes Berger as a top-10 player in the world, and most of them have him as a top-five player. Here’s a sampling.

  • Since start of 2020: 4th in strokes gained
  • Since restart in 2020 (June): 4th
  • Since start of 2021: 3rd

Since golf restarted amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June 2020, Berger has just two wins — including one that week — but 14 top 10s and a top-10 percentage that ranks him tied for fourth in the world with Justin Thomas, behind Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Dustin Johnson.

No matter how you slice it, Berger plays golf at a level at which the very best players in the world play. The neighborhood in which he hangs out, at least statistically, is filled with major champions, Ryder Cuppers and folks who have junior golf events named after them.

Yet there’s a nagging feeling that perhaps Berger doesn’t win quite as much as he should. That collection of four players I mentioned earlier (Rahm, Morikawa, Thomas and Johnson) who top 10 as much as or more than Berger has 3.75 wins on average in the same span of time, and all of them have at least one victory better than either of Berger’s.

There’s some information from Data Golf that would support this theory, too. Over the course of his career, Berger has played 20 final rounds in which he was in the top five on the leaderboard going into the final 18 holes. His expected win value at the start of those final rounds is 2.37 in the aggregate, but based on his final-round performance, his expected win value dropped to 1.83 (he won two of them). In other words, he doesn’t help himself a lot in final rounds when he’s in contention.

This implies that he has not risen to the occasion, broadly speaking. The most egregious of these instances came over the weekend at the Honda Classic. Those numbers are not out yet, but when they’re released, they will be ugly.

This goes against what we think of when we think of Berger. The image I have in my mind is a tobacco-spitting, no-cares-given menace who never backs down and never fades away. That’s a fun hero archetype, and it’s easy to project onto Berger, who always has that smug “I’m going to ball-strike you until you don’t know which tour you’re playing on” look.

The conclusion on Berger, as is often the case in golf, is mixed. There needs to be a greater appreciation for the work he’s done over the last 25 months because I’m guessing the average golf fan doesn’t have “Daniel Berger” on the tip of their tongue when you ask who the five best players in the world have been (statistically).

But we might also need to temper the stereotype that Berger is a flame-throwing closer. He can be, sure, and his resume backs it up. But he’s also failed in some “time to shut it down” situations just as he did on Sunday at PGA National. That doesn’t change his trajectory or his opportunity, but it should be held in tension with all the good he’s done over the course of his career.

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