Daniel Berger disappeared for 19 mysterious months. Where’d he go?

Daniel Berger is back on the PGA Tour after a long, mysterious, frustrating absence. So where’d he go — and what did he learn?

The post Daniel Berger disappeared for 19 mysterious months. Where’d he go? appeared first on Golf.

Daniel Berger is back on the PGA Tour after a long, mysterious, frustrating absence. So where’d he go — and what did he learn?

The post Daniel Berger disappeared for 19 mysterious months. Where’d he go? appeared first on Golf.

On Sunday at the 2022 Memorial Tournament, Daniel Berger teed off in the second-to-last group. He didn’t have his best day; a final-round 73 left him T5. It was a strong performance at one of the PGA Tour’s biggest events, just the latest in a string of impressive showings for the 29-year-old American star. Less than a year earlier he’d holed the final putt of a record-setting U.S. Ryder Cup victory. Just a couple months earlier he’d reached World No. 12, the highest mark of his career. This was his third top-five finish of the season. But still — trouble lurked.

“It’s been a long two months,” he said before that Memorial final round. “I’ve just had a lower back problem that’s been bothering me for a little while. Definitely not 100 percent but good enough to play.” He felt like he was trending in the right direction, he said. But he also conceded that he wasn’t healthy enough to practice. That seemed like a bad omen.

One tournament later, he disappeared.

Will Zalatoris finished T5 that week at the Memorial, too. For him, contending at big-time events was becoming something of a habit; he’d finished second at Torrey Pines, made the quarterfinals at the WGC-Match Play and T6 at the Masters. Before Memorial, he’d finished runner-up at the PGA Championship. One start later he’d finish runner-up at the U.S. Open. He was the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year — and it seemed like he was just getting started.

But a month later, just one week after his maiden PGA Tour win, Zalatoris withdrew from the BMW Championship.

A few starts later he disappeared, too.

It was only fitting, then, to see Berger paired with Zalatoris on Thursday morning at the American Express. This is the third event Zalatoris has played since his return in December. It’s Berger’s first professional golf tournament in 19 months. They have more in common than they’d like; there’s a world in which they would have been Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teammates in 2022 and 2023. Instead they joined a different club: the brotherhood of the back injury, an undesirable group with an undeniably strong pool of talent, proof that golf can be hard on the back.

But this week, Daniel Berger’s back isn’t a description of injury. It’s an utterance of celebration. Daniel Berger’s back!

“It was exciting,” Berger said on Golf Channel after his round. “I was up at 4 a.m., ready to go.”

Nobody is comparing this week’s AmEx to a major championship. The pro-am setup takes place on multiple courses with top-tier conditions and always demands low scores, but especially this year, with perfect weather and perfect greens, too. Berger and Zalatoris were paired with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and former chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Deborah Majoras. Smart, heady company. But friendly, too.

“The conditions are favorable, and the wind is not up, and the greens are pure. So, I figured if there was any place to start a season, this was it,” Berger said.

If he was rusty, it was tough to tell. Berger hardly seemed to miss a fairway or green on the front side, holing a birdie putt at the par-4 ninth to turn in four-under 32. He made bogeys at 10 and 13 but got those back with birdies at 15 and 16, ultimately finishing off an opening four-under 68.

Zalatoris birdied No. 18 to post 68, too, a fitting match.

But for Berger the specific score was never going to be Thursday’s measure of success. That would be measured by the sustainability of the round, and the hope he’d see signs of more pain-free rounds this year and next year and five years from now. There was clear relief on Berger’s face as he answered questions from on-site media. Success. He’d only played 10 rounds or so, he said, in the last six months. He didn’t really know how any of this was going to go. Opening with a solid round only helped solidify his confidence going forward.

“I told my caddie, If I play like this for three more days, then we’ll be in good position,” he said.

So what happened, anyway? Why’d Berger leave the Tour? Where’d he go? And what allowed him to return?

“It’s tough, especially with the back — it’s hard to be real specific because there’s always different factors that can cause you pain,” Berger said. For months he tried isolating the issue. He tried a variety of treatments. No luck.

Even that spring, when he reached his peak world ranking, he wasn’t having a good time.

“Mentally, I couldn’t accept being in pain every day that I was playing, so at that point I was like, ‘this is not fun anymore,’” he remembered. “It’s not fun going out to a golf tournament, not being able to do what you want to do physically. So, that was when I was like, ‘this just can’t keep going on anymore.’”

That’s when he stepped away from golf — shortly after the 2022 Memorial.

“You use your back for everything, so sitting, standing, doing any type of daily chore sucks,” he said. He didn’t touch a club for seven or eight months. But it wasn’t just losing golf that took a toll on him. It was losing all his other outlets, too.

“The toughest thing was, like, everything bothered me,” Berger said. “So, I’m used to being on the boat, playing tennis, playing beach volleyball, running, exercising, I’ve always been a very outside kind of person. That was taken away.”

Not feeling like himself, he said, was the hardest part. He worked on that. He got more used to it. But a piece of his self-identity had been taken away. It wasn’t until he got back out there that he started to feel, as he said, “more like Daniel than I was a year ago.”

His swing has changed, thanks in part to work with new coach Mark Blackburn. His preparation has changed.

“There’s no more going out there at 9 in the morning and swinging 120,” he said. “It’s the rehab process of getting there early, doing your stuff and getting ready to go.”

The golf world has changed, too. Berger is hardly Rip Van Winkle waking up from a two-year nap; he’s well aware what’s going on in the golf world. His playing partner in the final round of the 2022 Memorial was Cameron Smith. Zalatoris’ playing partner was Abraham Ancer. They’ve both left for LIV. Berger is No. 664 in the world. Things are in a different spot now than they were then.

“You come back and I have, really, nothing,” he said. “I was 10 or 12 in the world. [Now] I’m not in any of the majors, not in any of the elevated events, we’ve had all this stuff going on in the golf world. So, really, I’m kind of starting at ground zero trying to work my way back.”

He said Western medicine pushed him in the direction of surgery, but he resisted that option.

“I think if you don’t mess with your body it finds a way to heal itself,” he said. “In the beginning, I was trying all these different things and not knowing which one was helping me and which one was making me worse. So, finally, when I just cut the variables down to one or two, I could find out, ‘okay, this is what made me feel better.’”

There’s no expectation that he’ll be right back where he was. Zalatoris has shown there’s rust to knock off; he finished last at the Hero World Challenge and missed the cut at last week’s Sony Open. Even at home, Berger said, things are different. He references another member of the brotherhood, Florida neighbor Patrick Cantlay. Cantlay finished T3 at that 2022 Memorial, a shot ahead of Berger and Zalatoris, just the latest in a career spent in contention. Cantlay missed multiple years with back problems of his own; he’s a testament that things can get better.

“I used to joke with Pat, because we play a lot at home, and I would say, ‘you wanna play at 8 a.m.?’ And he’s like, ‘absolutely not.’ Now I understand where he’s coming from, because if you’re playing at 9, it’s a 5 a.m. start,” Berger said. “So, it’s just, everything’s changed a little bit, but it’s well worth going through the extra effort to be able to come out here and do what I love.”

Daniel Berger’s back. So far, so good.

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