2018 U.S. Open preview: 2-hole playoff format breaks with tradition, keeps with times

FILE - In this June 14, 1947, file photo, Lew Worsham, left, takes a good look at the putter that Sam Snead, right, used to sink a 20-foot putt on the last hole at the National Open Golf Tournament at the St. Louis Country Club in Ladue, Mo. The putt gave Snead a birdie -3 to tie Worsham for first place with 282. Worsham won the title on June 15 when Snead missed a putt of 2 feet, 6 1/2 inches on the 18th hole. (AP Photo/File) Associated Press (1947)

2018 U.S. Open preview: 2-hole playoff format breaks with tradition, keeps with times

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2018 U.S. Open preview: 2-hole playoff format breaks with tradition, keeps with times

The U.S. Open has been golf’s most demanding major championship all the way back to 1895 when the first winner – Horace Rawlins – required 173 strokes over four tours of Newport Country Club’s nine-hole layout. Famous for narrow fairways, ferocious rough and ice-rink greens, America’s national Open always has been more akin to a triathlon than a 100-meter dash for its competitors.

Overtime wasn’t easy time, either. Playoffs have always involved an extra day for extra holes, since at least 18 were required. It used to be 36 holes – and once even went a marathon 72 holes – but since 1947 a fifth round has been the minimum ask of combatants in extra innings.

No more. Playoff victories won’t get any easier, but they will come a lot sooner.

In February the U.S. Golf Association brought to an end a tradition as old as the organization itself, announcing the U.S. Open playoff format would become a two-hole aggregate affair, followed by sudden death if the players remain tied.

The change reflected the twin demands of broadcast realities and fan attention spans, neither of which is inclined toward long form.

“Golf really in this day and age has gotten to the point where everyone wanted to see a Sunday finish,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and CEO. “And based on that, we’ve made the decision we’re going to make this change to all four Open championships that we play.”

The new format also applies to the U.S. Women’s Open, the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

“There is no right or wrong way to determine a tie in stroke play. Two holes will allow a player to recover from any single mistake, and at the same time provide a memorable, and perhaps dramatic, experience for all involved,” Davis said.

The change places the U.S. Open more in step with the other majors. The British Open employs a four-hole aggregate playoff, and the PGA Championship goes three extra three holes. Only the Masters uses sudden death.

“The new playoff is good,” said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner who bested Nick Faldo by four in a playoff in 1988 at The Country Club. “Good for players, fans, viewers, volunteers, Fox TV and the overall finality of an event.”

“I don’t know if I like it,” said Brad Faxon, who will call the action at Shinnecock Hills this year for Fox Sports. “The Masters’ sudden-death format is certainly exciting but a lot of times not fair.”

Faxon played in 18 U.S. Opens and remains one of the game’s traditionalists.

“It’s interesting changing what was so radically different from every other championship,” he said. “It’s understandable how finishing on Sunday works for a society that wants instant gratification, but the USGA has always been unique even when not popular.”

There have been 33 playoffs in U.S. Open history. The last was 10 years ago at Torrey Pines, when 18 holes weren’t enough to separate Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate. They deadlocked after the playoff round before Woods won on the first hole of sudden death for his 14th – and to date, last – major victory.

What drama the new format supplies going forward remains to be seen. But “It’s A Wonderful Life” enthusiasts can find amusement in wondering how different the honor roll of the Open would look had a two-hole aggregate playoff been used since the days of gutta-percha (an admittedly meaningless exercise that cannot account for how players might have performed in such circumstances).

FILE - American golfer Francis B. Ouimet, center, shakes hands with Harry Vardon, left, and Ted Ray, both of Britain, at the U.S. Open Golf Championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in this 1913 file photo. Ouimet defeated the pair to become the new champion. In the tough, rainy conditions at Brookline, Ouimet played his best golf. He shot 72, while Vardon had a 78 and Ray shot 79. The gallery was among the biggest ever in America for a golf tournament, and it was hailed as one of the biggest upsets in sport. (AP Photo)

American golfer Francis B. Ouimet (center) defeated Harry Vardon, left, and Ted Ray, both of Britain, in an 18-hole playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open Golf Championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. In tough conditions, Ouimet played his best golf. He shot 72, while Vardon had a 78 and Ray shot 79. The gallery was among the biggest ever in America for a golf tournament, and it was hailed as one of the biggest upsets in sport at the time. (Associated Press)

Fourteen of those 33 playoffs would have resulted in a different champion and denied us some of the championship’s most iconic achievements. Francis Ouimet would have lost to Harry Vardon in 1913, ensuring “The Greatest Game Ever Played” would not have been made and leaving Golf Channel with untold hours of airtime to fill. Nor would Ben Hogan have won his celebrated comeback Open at Merion in 1950.

That one goes to Lloyd Mangrum over Hogan and George Fazio. And Ernie Els would have one less major trophy in his cabinet: Loren Roberts would have emerged from the three-way fight at Oakmont in 1994 that also included Colin Montgomerie.

One legend might have been happier, though. Sam Snead, second only to Phil Mickelson as the Open’s unluckiest loser with four runner-up finishes, would have won his only missing leg of the career Grand Slam in 1947.

Instead he lost to Lew Worsham. (see photo above)

But the names of U.S. Open champions are etched and won’t be erased.

Even if Shinnecock Hills delivers a dramatic Sunday evening playoff, purists will still conjecture about who might have emerged from the intense crucible of 18 holes Monday afternoon. The players themselves might wonder, too. But few will mourn the delayed satisfaction of crowning a winner as golf takes another step toward reshaping the game for the modern world, Faxon concedes.

“My perception is that given the USGA’s adaptation of several new rules to make golf more hip, popular or faster, the new two-hole playoff is following suit,” he said. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the June 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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