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Daniel Berger goes distance, and then some, to win at Colonial

Daniel Berger Collin Morikawa 2020 Colonial
Daniel Berger (left) receives congratulations from runner-up Collin Morikawa upon winning on the 1st hole of sudden-death playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge on Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas.

American birdies 72nd hole and then prevails against countryman Collin Morikawa in a playoff to win PGA Tour’s season restart

It was different, not necessarily weird. It was crowded, but only at the top of the leaderboard. It was memorable, perhaps even historic, but it was history born to a calamity, a medical malady we’d all like to forget.

The coronavirus isn’t gone, but the PGA Tour is back. Live golf without spectators after a three-month hiatus, which is why last Thursday’s action at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, attracted the tournament’s largest opening-round TV audience since Annika Sorenstam played there in 2003. Social distancing remains the rule, so it might have been best to look the other way when TV cameras showed us a sizable group of people gathered shoulder-to-shoulder at a private residence overlooking the 16th green.

Competitors and caddies walked side by side, and not just in symbolic formation. During a week when the rapid boil of racial tension remained the world’s biggest story, an African-American had the early lead to himself and remained a factor until Sunday’s back nine of the Charles Schwab Challenge. Alas, Harold Varner III eventually vanished from the picture, as would Jordan Spieth, another astonishing storyline.

We were left with merely a golf tournament, a very interesting one at that. No cultural statement, although Varner certainly left his footprint on a canvas largely lacking for color. And no timely career revival; Spieth’s pursuit of his first victory in almost three years ultimately was derailed by another bout of shoddy ball-striking.

Reality bites, and then the truth sets in. A Sunday full of flaws, flubs and flashes of brilliance ended with Daniel Berger beating Collin Morikawa in a playoff necessitated by Morikawa’s miss from 6 feet on the 72nd green, then settled when the second-year tour pro missed from virtually the same distance on the first hole of sudden death. Xander Schauffele would have joined the two felloow Americans in the overtime session if not for his own failure to convert from inside 3 feet at Colonial’s 17th, this after he’d knocked in a 31-footer for bogey at the 15th, then a downhill 25-footer for birdie at the 16th (scores).

In other words, it wasn’t the classiest of finishes, but a pretty good start. The top five players in the Official World Golf Ranking showed up for the resumption of the 2019-20 season, and with two of them (No. 1 Rory McIlroy and fourth-ranked Justin Thomas) figuring prominently heading into the weekend, you couldn’t ask for a much better set of competitive circumstances to set up the final 36 holes.

The problem is, Tour events last twice that long. McIlroy failed to capitalize on his second-round 63 and shot himself out of contention with a front-nine 41 on Sunday. Bryson DeChambeau made five birdies in a nine-hole stretch a bit later in the afternoon and looked as if he’d win with strokes to spare, but a terrible second shot long-left at the 17th led to a bogey. Golf’s new Mr. Muscles finished one back.

“Perfect 6-iron from the first cut, and it just took off like a missile,” DeChambeau said. “I got hosed. I got a flyer [lie], and I never would have expected that.”

If reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who was paired with Schauffele in Sunday’s final group, lost 25 pounds during the break, DeChambuff seemed to find every one of them. Three workouts daily added another layer of bulk to the Mad Scientist’s already reconstructed physique, but at old-school Colonial, it always has been about the brains, not the brawn.

Few Tour venues do a better job of forcing the big boys to gear down and play from the fairway. McIlroy and DeChambeau were among the many bombers unable to fully grasp the notion, and both, shall we say, came up short. Morikawa, meanwhile, was lauded at least twice by the CBS crew as “the best iron player in the game,” which is pretty crazy stuff considering the kid was making only his 23rd career start.

In Fort Worth, Morikawa offered plenty of evidence to support the claim, but his bread and butter failed him when he needed it the most. Eschewing his driver for a long iron on the first playoff hole (Colonial’s 18th), Morikawa lost his tee shot right, leaving him with a punch from the treeline that came to rest in the left rough, about 10 yards short of the green.

His ensuing chip was good, not great. Berger’s third from just off the back edge led to a tap-in, at which point Morikawa’s short-term memory needed to be really bad, not good. Too bad for him that he got it backwards.

This was the third Tour victory for Berger, and if it was something of a gift from the golf gods, it also amounted to just compensation for his being on the wrong end of Spieth’s hole-out from a greenside bunker in overtime to win in Hartford three summers ago. Spieth would claim his third major title four weeks later at the British Open. He hasn’t won since, nor had Berger, whose career took a hit when he tried to play through a wrist injury in 2018 and much of 2019.

Berger began 2020 ranked 152nd, but he arrived at Colonial coming off three consecutive top 10s. So what if the last one was on March 1? He holed a 10½-footer for birdie at the 18th Sunday to give himself a fighting chance, and from there, fate intervened. Reality bites, and when opportunity strikes, someone will bite back. Eventually.

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