GORDON WHITE: Playoff: USGA Has It Right in U.S. Open Championship
The United States Open Golf Championship is the strongest and truest test yet devised to determine a champion in the sport for a number of reasons, one of which is the 18-hole playoff in case of a tie after 72 holes.
If last Monday's spectacular battle between the crippled Tiger Woods and the captivating Rocco Mediate did not prove this to golf fans and those normally unconcerned about such pastureland exercise, then nothing will. Those who stopped work to watch, as millions did, witnessed the conclusion of what is being called by some "the greatest U.S. Open in history."
I tend to hold off on "the greatest in history" label simply because there have been Opens in the past that earned this moniker in their day also. Each era has one such U.S. Open and last week's Open was certainly one of the greatest U.S. Opens ever played and obviously the No. 1 spectacle in the Tiger Woods era. It was one of the greatest golf tournaments ever played and one of the greatest American sports events staged in recent years.
Why, 18 holes weren't even enough to settle the issue at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif. Tiger had to par the 19th extra hole to win his 14th major championship and third U.S. Open. What a show! It may never be topped for drama in this sport where golfers are not always considered athletes and injuries seem much less of a concern to the public than they are in football, baseball, basketball, hockey and, sadly, horse racing.
Today the tension and theater of it all seems even more forceful than it was when we watched in amazement as Tiger performed in obvious pain. We, the viewers, assumed he was suffering from the aftereffects of arthroscopic surgery to his left knee in April as did the overly talkative and uninformed television crew of Johnny Miller and his coterie of yes men and yes women.
We now know Tiger has been living and playing for nearly a year with a severely ruptured ligament in his left knee that must be repaired with another major operation. He was also playing last week with a double stress fracture to his left tibia (shinbone) that he suffered about three weeks ago.
We now know he played five rounds plus one hole over this year's most difficult test for the world's best golfers and did it under conditions that might put the average person and even average PGA Tour golfer into a hospital bed.
Would it have been as striking a feat if Tiger Woods had beaten Rocco Mediate on the first or second hole of a sudden-death playoff Sunday immediately after completing those strenuous 72 holes? Not close, although Tiger's first four rounds were as difficult for him as was that fifth and extra round because his condition was there at the outset of the 108th U.S. Open.
But the complete round, used to decide the United States golf champion when there is a deadlock after four rounds, is the correct way to settle something as important as our national golf title. No crimped, short version of a round of golf is proper since luck plays too great a role, and we all know how golf has its crazy bounces and elements of luck. These tend to even out over a complete round, thus giving us a true champion, not a fluke.
Tiger simply gutted it out as few athletes have ever been required to do in any sport. And it was solely his choice -- apparently against doctors' orders. If he wanted to win he had to play by the rules, injury or no injury, pain or no pain.
The short version or sudden-death playoff is strictly an artificial, modern, television gimmick. TV rules the roost all too often in sports, creating situations that are sometimes not really a true part of the sport.
Television, more than any other element involved, caused both the United States and British Opens to become four-day events instead of the former three-day event with 36 holes on the third day. That third day was usually a Saturday, barring weather interruptions.
The initial four-day U.S. Open came in 1965. That was a year after Ken Venturi won the U.S. Open at Congressional in heat so extreme that he had a doctor walk the course with him on Saturday afternoon in the fourth and final round that was the second 18-hole round of that day.
I must assume television (NBC in this case) has been hoping for years to persuade the United States Golf Association, which conducts the U.S. Open, to use a four-hole medal score playoff immediately following the regulation 72 holes if there is a tie. This is the British Open playoff format at present. The Masters has a sudden death format in case of ties, and the PGA Championship uses a three-hole medal play system.
Television executives do not like interrupting regular Monday telecasts such as the soaps in order to televise 18-hole golf playoffs. They want an end to things on Sunday. But the USGA is a holdout, thank goodness. Thus the U.S. Open remains the lone major tournament with an 18-hole round the next day to settle any ties.
NBC could not complain, however, about last Monday's ratings, the highest in the history of Monday playoffs. It attracted so many workers away from their jobs that stock trades on Wall Street fell 10 percent from the average Monday business.
The USGA sets up its Open courses like no other golf course is set up for a major championship or any other tournament. From tee through green, a U.S. Open course tests all of a golfer's skills like no other tournament does. All 14 clubs are important.
Sometimes the USGA goes a bit too far as it did at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island in 2004 when it made the greens concrete hard and as fast as an ice rink. I think the USGA set pins in some ridiculous places by putting them too close to the steep edges here at Pinehurst No. 2 during the 2005 U.S. Open, particularly on Sunday's last round.
But Torrey Pines, which was very difficult, was quite fairly set up according to the competitors. The rough was high, higher and very high, progressing away from the narrow fairways. The rather small greens were fast but manageable for the world's best golfers. Their main problem was keeping the ball out of the rough so they could make shots to greens and hold those greens. That was the test of the players' skills. Keep the ball on the short grass.
All these physical factors plus the looming 18-hole playoff if a tie occurs add up to the most trying test in the game year in and year out. It is the USGA that does it and sticks to it year in and year out.
Some folks want everything to end on Sunday, claiming that is the way it should be. But the U.S. Open did not always have its final regulation round on Sunday. Why can't golf be played on Monday? Is it just that in this day of TV, fewer folks can watch? That is too bad. But to abbreviate a playoff is to lessen the strength of the tournament overall. Years ago before television, all PGA Tour events had 18-hole playoffs. I was at the 1950 Los Angeles Open 18-hole playoff when Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan at Riviera.
Years later, the tour succumbed to television pressures and began its sudden-death playoffs. Many of these have been won by lucky bounces.
There have been 32 playoffs for the U.S. Open Championship -- 29 at 18 holes and three at 36 holes in 1928, 1929 and 1931. Thus there has been a playoff at about every third U.S. Open. Three of the 18-hole playoffs ended in another deadlock forcing a second 18-hole playoff. The longest U.S. Open playoff occurred in 1931 when the first 36-hole playoff resulted in another tie and a second 36-hole playoff was required. That is how Billy Burke beat George Von Elm after 144 holes. Even that is a little much for my liking.
The USGA instituted its current method of sudden death after an 18-hole playoff tie in the late 1980s. This was how Woods won last Monday and how Hale Irwin beat Mike Donald on the first sudden-death hole in 1990 at Medinah in Illinois.
The USGA staged its first U.S. Open 18-hole playoff in 1901 at the Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts. That was the seventh U.S. Open and the fourth U.S. Open to have 72 holes of regulation. But back then the golfers went 36 holes in each of two days so even with a playoff, the 1901 U.S. Open was only three days long. However, it was spread over four days.
Those first two days of 36 holes each were played on Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15. The unexpected 18-hole playoff was put off until Monday, June 17, because the Myopia Hunt members insisted they and only they had playing privileges for Sunday -- U.S. Open or no U.S. Open.
Willie Anderson, a dour English golf pro, beat another Englishman, Alex Smith, by one stroke, 85 to 86, in the playoff for the first of his four U.S. Open championships. Who is to say that one-stroke victory by Anderson on the final hole did not provide us with a great U.S. Open of that era?
Anderson also won his second U.S. Open title in the second Open playoff in 1903 by beating David Brown, also an English pro, 82-84, at New Jersey's Baltusrol Golf Club. Then Anderson won the next two U.S. Opens in the regulation 72 holes each time.
Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus are the only other golfers to win four U.S. Open titles and each of them was pushed to a playoff at least once. Jones had to win two Open playoffs, including one of the three longest playoffs in U.S. Open history.
Jones, who beat Bobby Cruickshank in an 18-hole playoff for the 1923 title, trounced Al Espinosa, 141-164, at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in a Sunday 36-hole playoff for the 1928 crown.
Hogan won the second of his four U.S. Open titles in 1950 when he beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.
Jack Nicklaus, the pudgy, 22-year-old, new kid on the block, beat Arnold Palmer, the King, in Arnie's own backyard at Oakmont, Pa., by 3 shots in the 1962 U.S. Open playoff. That was the Golden Bear's first U.S. Open championship.
Any one of those U.S. Opens won in a playoff by Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus could be added to the great U.S. Opens list. Some who witnessed them might say they were as good as last week's Open.
Hogan won three U.S. Opens, two Masters and one British Open after a near fatal auto-bus accident in February 1949. This forced him to go through lengthy hot bath and exercise treatments prior to playing a round of golf for the remainder of his career. Any of his victories from 1950 on could rate up there with Woods' achievement of last week. Hogan was always in pain after the accident.
Francis Ouimet's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., is considered the biggest upset in U.S. Open history. He defeated Harry Vardon and Edward (Ted) Ray, the world's two leading golf pros from the U.K., in an 18-hole playoff. Some still say that was the greatest U.S. Open as an American amateur shocked the mighty British pros.
Ironically, Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus each lost in a U.S. Open playoff once, thus preventing each of them from becoming a five-time winner of the Open.
Most golf aficionados believe that if Woods recovers fully from this upcoming very serious surgery, and his broken bone heals, he will go on to win two more U.S. Opens or even more to become the only man to win more than four of our national golf championships.
I am one of those who believe he can do it if his leg has not been damaged beyond repair.
I also believe that if he fully recovers he will continue to leave us viewing in near disbelief as he sinks those putts for birdies and eagles and for championships. Like most others, I surely hope he will be able to do this.
Also, I fervently hope the USGA never gives in to the pressures to stage Sunday sudden-death playoffs in any format. The most prestigious championship in golf is, I believe, the U.S. Open. This is not because it has the best field of golfers. The best full field each year is probably at the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
The reason the U.S. Open is the most prestigious championship is that no other golf tournament is consistently waged under such trying and difficult conditions. The British Open is, at times, as difficult with very high rough. But the U.K. links courses depend upon Mother Nature for water. If there is little or no rain in England and Scotland, then the Open course plays rather easily because of sparse rough.
The Masters is a test of golf for these pros only around the silly, huge greens that roll and drop and rise like green slabs of polished stone -- impossible to hold and impossible to putt. Anyone can make a course that way and say they have a tough track.
There is little rough at Augusta National so the entire game is not tested the way it is at the U.S. Open.
Jack Nicklaus has long maintained that "the U.S. Open is the most difficult and complete examination of a golfer." He should know after winning four U.S. Opens and playing in two of those 18-hole playoffs.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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