Confident Berger custom fit for Presidents Cup match play

Daniel Berger finished fifth in the Presidents Cup standings to qualify for Team USA for the first time. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- "What are we playing for?" the precocious 13-year-old asked the golf professional who'd just finished a competitive playing career.

Matt Doyle had only met Daniel Berger minutes earlier. Daniel's father, Jay Berger, had recently moved their family due north in South Florida, from Key Biscayne to Jupiter, and needed some help.

Jay had always been a tennis guy. He was once the seventh-ranked male player in the world, a doubles partner of Andre Agassi, a three-time ATP champion, two-time Davis Cup team member and a man who would become the United States Olympic coach.

Golf was out of his realm of expertise, but Daniel had taken a keen interest in the game. Rather than attempt to transfer his tennis wisdom onto the second-oldest of his four children, Jay sought a proper instructor.

He'd heard about Doyle from Ivan Lendl, a mutual friend who'd morphed from the world's best tennis player into an excellent golfer. So Jay brought Daniel to The Dye Preserve, where Doyle was working as an assistant pro.

"I watched him hit for maybe five or 10 minutes," Doyle recalls. "I didn't even say anything, I just watched. You could tell he had the hand-eye coordination. He knew what he was doing."

Doyle wanted to see whether he could bring it to the course, so he asked Daniel to join him for 18 holes.

That's when the 13-year-old kid asked about the stakes.

The pro bemusedly deferred, knowing he was only months removed from chasing his own PGA Tour dream. Daniel made a suggestion.

"Let's play a $20 closeout," he said.

"Are you good with that?" Doyle countered.

Already a scratch-handicap needler, the kid poked back.

"Are you good with losing to a 13-year-old?"

The 13-year-old didn't win the match, but he did win a lot more. Daniel holed out for an eagle on the back nine, broke 70 and immediately got the attention of his opponent -- and new boss.

When they finished, Doyle told Jay that he needed someone to pick the range during late afternoons. If Daniel would do that, he was free to practice and play at the facility anytime he wanted.

Not bad for a kid who'd taken up the game only two years earlier.

At some point this week, as Daniel follows in the family footsteps by representing the U.S. in a team competition, playing in his first Presidents Cup, Jay will remember that first round they shared together.

Daniel was 11 at the time, and they'd traveled to Daytona Beach on a tennis trip. Father and son each took a golf lesson, then hit the links. Once they'd finished, Daniel told his dad that he wanted to be a professional golfer someday.

Then he asked him a question.

"How many hours a day do you practice for tennis?"

"I practice five hours a day," Jay told him, thinking that might be enough to scare him away from the idea.

"OK," replied Daniel. "Then I'm going to practice eight hours a day."

Jay loves telling this story today, punctuating the kicker. "On my life," he says, "he practiced eight hours a day, every single day that summer."

The hard work has clearly paid off. Still more than six months shy of his 25th birthday, Daniel Berger is already a two-time PGA Tour champion, four-time runner-up and part of the Class of 2011 high school graduates, along with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, a group that is taking the golf world by storm.

"The first thing I told my dad when I turned pro is, 'I want to play for money.' I didn't want to play for these crystal trophies. I mean, they're cool and all, but I wanted to get paid. I knew if I did the right things, I could." Daniel Berger

It was all spawned during those formative years, which he spent honing his swing at The Dye Preserve -- and playing money matches against some of the club's big-name professionals.

In particular, Steve Marino became a regular foil.

At the time, Marino was a thriving PGA Tour member, posting 18 top-10 finishes between 2007 and 2010. When he was home, though, he could often be found hanging at the course with young Berger.

"I was like 14 years old, just this little s---," Berger recalls. "I don't give Steve enough credit for taking me under his wing. I think I just had this f--- you attitude, where even though he was top-30 in the world, I was like, 'Dude, I'm going to beat you right now.' He might have seen some of himself in me."

Doyle remembers the first time Berger beat Marino in a match. They'd played nine holes, and the kid broke par to finally win.

"It was at least a few hundred bucks," Doyle says. "He was like, 'I told you I could beat him.'"

The next day, Marino got his revenge. Instead of money, he took the kid's brand-new iPod. It was all part of the learning process. If you don't like losing, he soon understood, then you'd better win instead.

Berger wasn't just talented and motivated. He was self-sufficient. Two days after getting his driver's license at 16, he drove six hours to Jacksonville to play in a tournament, then drove home afterward.

Upon high school graduation, he played for two years at Florida State before realizing it was stalling his evolution as a golfer.

"A lot of things that we did in college weren't the things you can do to be a top-tier athlete," he says. "You can't go out and drink four nights a week, you can't eat McDonald's, you can't lift heavy weights. I had the knowledge of what it takes to be a professional athlete. I knew that if I wanted to be a professional, I needed to change the way I was doing things."

Not long after Spieth turned pro in late 2012, Berger followed. The kid who'd always been so independent was ready to embark on a professional career.

"The first thing I told my dad when I turned pro is, 'I want to play for money.' I didn't want to play for these crystal trophies. I mean, they're cool and all, but I wanted to get paid. I knew if I did the right things, I could."

A professional golfer who lacks confidence probably won't be a professional golfer very long. Some, though, exude the trait more than others, oozing confidence from their pores.

Consider Berger among this group.

"You have to have a really strong belief in yourself," he admits. "I do, because I've put in the work and done everything I can to be successful."

Asked whether the lines are blurred between his confidence and cockiness, he acquiesces. "A little bit. I tend to think I'm pretty good at things I'm not good at. I think I can beat Matt Kuchar in pingpong. Deep down, I know I can't. But I keep telling him I'm going to beat his ass. If that's cocky, then yeah, I'm cocky."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"He's always been that way," acknowledges Brooks Koepka, his teammate for one year at Florida State and again on this year's Presidents Cup team. "But if you're not cocky, there's something wrong with you. Everybody out here is confident and thinks they're the best. That's what he thinks -- and he should."

Last year, Berger was battling Phil Mickelson for the title in Memphis -- the same Mickelson who at the time was twice his age and owned 42 career PGA Tour victories to his zero.

While the acerbic lefthander ribbed his young peer for claiming the Rookie of the Year title without winning a tournament, Berger punched right back, referring to him formally as "Philip."

"He says only his wife calls him that," Berger said on Saturday of that week. "I can't call him that until I win on the PGA Tour."

The next day, he won.

Those old recollections of losing cash and surrendering his iPod still ring true for Berger. If there's a criticism of this era's growing group of 20-something superstars, it's that PGA Tour riches might have forced a complacency that never developed in previous generations.

That notion can be easily argued, of course, and Berger is doing his part to prove that anything other than winning is an unsatisfactory option.

"If I finish 10th, I'm pissed at a 10th-place finish," he says. "If I finish fifth, I'm pissed at a fifth-place finish."

One of the most memorable moments from this summer's golf schedule occurred at the Travelers Championship. On the first hole of a playoff, Spieth holed a bunker shot for birdie, airborne rakes and wedges prompting pandemonium among the raucous gallery.

Often forgotten is the fact that once decorum was restored, Berger nearly drained his own 35-foot birdie attempt.

"He put beautiful speed on it," Spieth sighed afterward. "At about the halfway point, I'm like, 'Is he really going to make this?'"

As Thomas explains of Berger, "He hates to lose. He's told me before, he hates losing to me and he doesn't like it when we're playing well, because he wants to beat us. It takes a man to admit that."

Jay Berger insists he never pressured his son to become a professional golfer, never had to implore him to work harder or practice more.

He does, though, take some indirect credit for Daniel's competitive desire.

"I think his genetic makeup is to be a competitor," Jay says. "I think he has a very healthy relationship with competing. That's the way he was brought up. It was never about the winning -- it was about the process behind it, trying to get better."

Berger's confidence, cockiness and full array of moxie will be on display this week, as he competes for the red, white and blue for his first time as a pro.

It's a feeling his father already knows, a legacy being passed down from one generation to the next. Now he'll finally get a taste of what he's wanted for so long.

"I've got chills just thinking about it," Berger says. "I love to have teammates that rely on you, and I love to rely on teammates. For me, this is the pinnacle. Team golf, it can't get any better."