ATLANTA — There is hope. Perhaps it is as slight as the azaleas blooming in November at Augusta National, but the possibility exists. Daniel Berger has yet to be told “no” from tournament officials, so he is clinging to the idea that maybe, just maybe, he will be able to tee it up at the Masters in November.
Berger, 27, is possibly the most glaring omission from the postponed Masters field, although he made it clear he understands and is fine with the rules in place that locked the qualifiers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
It’s just that, well … there is no harm in trying. Hence, his agent, Mark Steinberg, has been in touch with Augusta National officials to state his case.
“Nothing is set in stone,” Berger said Saturday, when he shot 71 in the second round of the Tour Championship. “It’s not a yes, it’s not a no. It’s just wait and see. It’s definitely not out of the question, but I would say it’s highly unlikely.
“If I don’t play, in reality, it is what it is. What eats at me the most is that I want to play in the best tournaments possible. I want to compete in major championships. So when I don’t get the opportunity, it’s frustrating.”
The other side of the argument that Berger understands is that he had the opportunity to qualify for the 2020 Masters — he simply did not meet the qualification criteria in time to play in the rescheduled event. Next year? No problem. His win at the Charles Schwab Challenge in June took care of that.
On Saturday, Berger ended his round poorly, making bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes at East Lake and then three-putting the final green for a par, all of which effectively knocked him out of contention for the FedEx Cup title.
He began the tournament sixth in the FedEx standings, which meant he began 6 strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. After scores of 69 and 71, Berger is tied for 17th and 9 strokes back.
A few lackluster rounds has hardly deterred him. He thinks he could win the Masters. But you can’t win if you don’t play.
He has four top-3 finishes, including a victory, in seven tournaments since the restart and is now ranked 13th in the world. Berger also was in the top 10 in each of his past three tournaments prior to the shutdown, including a tie for fourth at the Honda Classic.
Berger then opened the Players Championship with a 67 — and golf stopped.
A few weeks later, the Masters announced that it was postponing the tournament until Nov. 12-15 and that the field would be set at 96, with those meeting the qualification criteria at that point making the field. Anything played after the resumption would count toward 2021 invitations. At the time of the shutdown, Berger was ranked outside of the top 100 in the world — although he will always wonder what a high finish at the Players or possibly the WGC-Match Play would have done.
Invitations were given to the top 50 as well as any player who had won a PGA Tour event since the 2019 Masters.
“Listen, they were pretty clear that when the pandemic hit,” Berger said. “These are the guys who are in the tournament. It’s not going to change. You’re not going to move out. I respect whatever decision they make.
“From my perspective, I just want to play the best tournaments possible. I don’t think it hurts to have me in the field. It’s better for the golf tournament if the 13th-ranked player is playing in it.”
It is unclear what recourse Augusta National has other than to offer Berger a special invitation — which it has typically reserved for international players who otherwise did not qualify.
The tournament is also on the high end of competitors with 96. Given nearly 90 minutes less daylight in November compared to April, the Masters is likely looking at two-tee starts off both the front and back sides. That is not ideal, and adding players complicates things.
Then again, one player?
Berger said he gets it. And when he saw what happened recently with Germany’s Sophia Popov, who won the Women’s Open but is not eligible for next week’s ANA Inspiration because the tournament had also locked its field, he knew what he was up against.
“I don’t think that was good for my cause,” he said, noting that LPGA commissioner Mike Whan referenced the Masters decision to not alter its field.
Berger has three PGA Tour victories and tied for 10th in his first Masters in 2016. But he missed the tournament last year after a rough 2018 in which he injured his right wrist, an injury that affected a ligament near a finger.
It pretty much ruined his 2019 season, as he returned too soon and tried to play through it.
“I couldn’t grip anything,” he said. “It was so weak, I couldn’t crush an empty soda can. I couldn’t shake anybody’s hand. I was on more anti-inflammatories in an eight-month stretch than anyone probably humanly possible should take. I just wanted to do what I could to get out there and play.
“In retrospect, I should have taken more time off. And after time off, it got better. Strengthened the forearm. Did some wrist stuff. It was just the time off.”
Now Berger doesn’t want time off. He’s in the U.S. Open in two weeks. He plans to play a couple of events in October. And he really wants to be just a few hours down the road from East Lake at Augusta National come November.
“The Masters is such a great event — once you play it you never want to miss it,” he said. “I missed it last year. I know I’m in for April, but I like where my game is at right now and want to play. If it happens, I’ll be so excited.”