Daniel Berger had fought back against Phil Mickelson all day, only to find himself settled up close to a rock retaining wall just off the 18th fairway, needing a big shot in a must-win situation at the Dell Match Play.
Painfully close, it turned out.
After measuring and re-measuring his swing perhaps a dozen times, Berger hit the wall on his downswing, missed his ball, let go of his club and grabbed his left wrist in pain.
Seconds later, he waved to Mickelson and conceded the match that had been all-square off the 18th tee. The loss dropped the 22-year-old 2015 rookie of the year to 0-2 in the round-robin portion of the tournament, knocking him out even if he returns to play Friday.
“I wouldn’t play if my wrist doesn’t feel good with the Masters coming up. We’ll see, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel that great right now,” said Berger, who was still grabbing his wrist and flexing his fingers five minutes after the match. “I’ve never had an injury in my life. We’ll see. Hopefully, I’ll be all right.”
Berger’s withdrawal pushed Mickelson to 2-0, a position he considered himself a bit lucky to be in after a ragged round that saw him spray tee shots and made only two birdies.
“We both struggled today, neither one of us really ‘won’ any holes. We handed each other holes back-and-forth,” Mickelson said. “It wasn’t the match either of us hoped for.”
Mickelson was watching from about 100 yards when Berger struck the rock. From that far away, he could see the dust fly and Berger drop his club before he could hear the “crack” of the club striking the rock.
“I thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t make contact,” Mickelson said. “Hopefully, his wrist is OK.”
Mickelson is back in the match play tournament after skipping it the last four years to spend time with his family. His best finish was in 2004 when he reached the quarterfinals.
“I’ve always enjoyed the event. It was never the event that held me back, it was that my kids were on vacation all the time,” Mickelson said. “I’m excited to be back and playing.”
At 45, Mickelson is the second-oldest player in the tournament and he and England’s Lee Westwood are the only two players in the field who competed in the inaugural match play championship in 1999. Mickelson’s playing partners in the first two rounds — Berger and England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick — weren’t even born when Mickelson won his first PGA Tour title in 1991.
Mickelson will face 24-year-old Patrick Reed on Friday, with the winner advancing to the knockout stage. They were teammates in the last Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.
“There are a lot of good young players,” Mickelson said. “They are fun to watch. They hit the ball hard and can play.”
Berger said he enjoyed the round with one of his boyhood idols. But he also made it clear early on he wasn’t going to give anything easy to the five-time major championship winner when he made Mickelson putt out from less than a foot to halve the second hole. But any potential for tension quickly disappeared as the players chatted with each other walking up the next fairway.
Berger leaves disappointed with his two losses in a Ryder Cup year. That’s a big reason he wants to play Friday if his wrist allows, and hopes U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III will be watching.
“I’ve got to get better if I want to win these matches,” Berger said. “I knew I had to win today. Tomorrow I just go try to have some fun to show captain Love that I’m good enough to be on that team. I know I am.”