Since the playing of the first United States Open in 1895, the year after the United States Golf Association was founded, the procedure to settle a tie after regulation play in the tournament was straightforward: a playoff consisted of 18 more holes of golf.
The thinking was that only a full round would provide a full and complete examination to determine the champion.
Playoffs occur in the U.S. Open more commonly than most realize. Of the 119 played to date, 33 have resulted in playoffs, or about one in every four. Most years, those playoffs followed the original procedure, or some variant of an additional 18 holes. But from 1928 through 1931, playoffs were settled at 36 holes, with the 1931 playoff requiring two additional 36-hole rounds — a total of 144 holes played — before the rule was changed back to 18 holes. The procedure was further modified in 1953 to include continuous hole-by-hole play at sudden death until a winner emerged in case of a tie after the initial 18-hole playoff.
Significantly, some of the most compelling golf has occurred in U.S. Open playoffs.
In 1913, a 20-year-old former caddie, Francis Ouimet, defeated two of the greatest golfers in the world, the Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in an 18-hole playoff at the Country Club, outside Boston, transforming golf from a game for the elites to one with populist and diverse appeal. Ouimet’s win set off the first big golf boom in America.
In 1929, in the first U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., Bobby Jones — after dissipating a six-stroke lead with just seven holes to play — made a curling 12-foot putt on the 18th hole to force a tie. He went on to defeat Al Espinosa in a 36-hole playoff by a whopping 23 strokes.
Ben Hogan won an 18-hole playoff at Merion Golf Club, near Philadelphia, in 1950, 16 months after a horrific head-on crash with a Greyhound bus that almost crippled him. Red Smith immortalized Hogan’s performance, “Maybe once in the lifetime of any of us it is possible to say with accuracy and without mawkishness, ‘This was a spiritual victory, an absolute triumph of will!’”
But in 2018, the U.S.G.A. quietly changed the playoff format to a two-hole aggregate score, with play commencing directly after the conclusion of play on the final day. Sudden death would follow, if necessary.
It was a dramatic, if unheralded, change, and if it had been applied to the hole-by-hole scores of the 33 playoffs played before it, it would have produced drastically different results in 15 of the previous U.S. Open playoffs. Ouimet would have lost to Vardon on the sixth playoff hole in 1913; Jones would have lost to Espinosa on the second hole in 1929; and Hogan would have lost to Lloyd Mangrum on the second playoff hole in 1950.
Some of the biggest triumphs in golf history as we have come to know them would be erased.
In justifying the change to the two-hole aggregate playoff structure, Mike Davis, the U.S.G.A. chief executive, has said, “Golf really in this day and age has gotten to the point where everyone wants to see a Sunday finish.”
Jeff Hall, the U.S.G.A.’s managing director of rules, explained the thinking behind the decision to force a finish on the final day: “We consulted with important constituencies, not the least of which are players. We talked to fans on site and we talked to fans that were taking in the championship through the broadcast; obviously, our television partners are part of that discussion as well. So many people have a vested interest in getting a result on Sunday.”
The decision highlights the importance of prime time TV broadcasts, likely a major impetus for the playoff change, which would incur additional costs if the finale went past Sunday.
One person with knowledge of the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “This new playoff method potentially injects a flukiness that’s inappropriate for the national championship. Wouldn’t it be a shame if a lucky bounce — or an unlucky one — determined the winner in a two-hole playoff? Over 18 holes, luck would largely be taken out of the equation.”
A retired senior-level U.S.G.A. executive perhaps summed up the new playoff rule best, “The U.S. Open is supposed to be an arduous exam, not a pop quiz.”
Despite not having had a U.S. Open playoff in a dozen years, two of the previous five U.S. Opens held at Winged Foot required playoffs, making the chances of one happening this year appear more likely.
If a playoff is required at Winged Foot, it will be decided by a two-hole aggregate playoff on Holes 10 (a par 3 of 214 yards with the deepest bunkers on the course) and 18 (a dogleg left par 4 of 469 yards to an elevated, well-bunkered green) immediately after play. If the playoff results in a tie, play will continue on a hole-by-hole basis on Holes 10, 11 (a short par 4 of 384 yards) and 18, repeated, if necessary, until a champion is determined.
Perhaps one of the competitors will have to duplicate Jones’s glorious putt to either get into a playoff or win.