Rookies, friends Berger, Thomas high on leaderboard


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Class of 2011 extends beyond just Jordan Spieth on the PGA Tour.

That’s the high school graduating class of 2011, mind you, a crop of players who otherwise would be embarking on their final semesters of college this spring. While Spieth gets the most attention, a pair of his peers are high on the leaderboard at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Daniel Berger was on the Tour last year, and he needed a sponsor invite to snag a spot in this week’s field. Berger has put the exemption to good use through 36 holes, carding rounds of 65 and 69 to move to the top of the leaderboard at 8 under par when he finished.

“Any time you’re leading after two rounds in a field like this, you’re pretty happy,” Berger said. “I was lucky enough to get a sponsor exemption in here. Just thankful for the opportunity.”

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Berger earned his card at last year’s Tour Finals, and made his first PGA Tour start after qualifying for the 2014 U.S. Open. He went on to card the low score of the final round at Pinehurst No. 2 and finished T-28.

Like Berger, Justin Thomas is 21. The two competed in college, Berger at Florida State and Thomas at Alabama, and both are now residents of Jupiter, Fla. Thomas, too, is the recipient of a sponsor exemption this week and making the most of his opportunity.

“I’m very pleased. I played really well the last two days,” said Thomas, who sits one shot behind Berger at 7 under. “I think the important thing for me is I managed my mistakes well. When I got in trouble, I just kept it in front of me and just tried to salvage as many pars as I can.”

Thomas is in the midst of a remarkable stretch to begin his rookie season. He shot a 61 en route to a T-6 finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii, then finished T-7 last week at the Humana Challenge. Yet he was frustrated by his result in Palm Springs, where a double bogey on the 70th hole cost him a share of the lead.

“I was definitely upset,” he said. “The four-hour drive the next day gave me plenty of time to think about it here, too. That’s just part of the learning curve.”

While Berger admits that Thomas got the best of him when they went head-to-head in college, he hopes to get a crack at his friend and frequent practice-round partner this weekend.

“We get to play a lot of golf together. We’re good buddies, we hang out all the time,” Berger said. “Hopefully we get to play together tomorrow.”