U.S. Open 2018: Rewriting History

Now that the USGA has gone from 18 holes to two for U.S. Open playoffs, we look back on what might have been.
June 12, 2018

When the USGA announced this year that it was going to switch to a two-hole playoff and sudden death thereafter to determine future winners of the U.S. Open in case of a tie after 72 holes, those who usually follow the championship on TV had a perfect excuse to go happily singing and dancing into the night. No longer would they be forced to call in sick at work to watch the 18-hole playoff on Monday. Unless of course it involved Al Watrous versus Aubrey Boomer. Who would care?

I, however, slumped over in regret when the news hit that after 123 years of 18-hole playoffs, five playoffs of 36 holes, and one of 72 holes, the winner of the grand old Open title has suddenly been reduced to what might as well be a coin flip no matter who's involved. And obviously for television.

It sent me staggering back into the past to see how the two-hole playoff and sudden death might have changed history. Immediate finding: In a shocking 15 of the U.S. Open's 33 playoffs—hold still—a different winner emerges.

Under this new playoff format, Sam Snead would've won a U.S. Open and a career Slam.

Pardon me for suggesting that these results would have had a profound effect on the game's illustrious history. But consider:

▶ On the sixth hole of sudden death, Harry Vardon beats Francis Ouimet at Brookline in 1913, killing one of the great golf stories of all time. Ouimet lives the rest of his life as a bartender.

▶ Instead of Bobby Jones beating Al Espinosa by 23 strokes in their 36-hole playoff at Winged Foot in 1929, Espinosa wins the first two holes to hoist the Open trophy. A year later, Espinosa wins the Grand Slam. Jones retires to practice law. The Masters is never created.

▶ The golf world is saved the agony of enduring its only 72-hole playoff when George Von Elm defeats Billy Burke on the first two holes in 1931 at Inverness. Celebrations break out all over Toledo.

▶ After so many heartbreaks, Sam Snead finally wins the Open in the two-hole playoff over Lew Worsham at St. Louis Country Club in 1947. The world rejoices. The Slammer is no longer a four-time Open runner-up.

▶ Lloyd Mangrum becomes No. 1 on the FBI's Public Enemy list when he ruins Ben Hogan's comeback at Merion in 1950 by winning after two holes of the playoff. Hy Peskin's famous photo of Hogan's shot to the 72nd hole never makes print. Mangrum escapes capture. Last heard of living somewhere near Auckland, New Zealand.

▶ After blowing a seven-stroke lead in the final nine holes of regulation, Arnold Palmer outlasts Billy Casper on the fourth hole of the playoff at Olympic in 1966 to claim his second Open. The world rejoices again. National holiday declared.

▶ The USGA calls an urgent meeting to discuss the shocking new winners of the Open, a list that now includes Bobby Cruickshank, Jacky Cupit, Loren Roberts and Mark Brooks. Name change of tournament suggested.

Under further review, Jack Fleck still beats Hogan at Olympic in '55, so that nightmare continues, largely at my expense.


Photo by David Canon/Getty Images

▶ A list of the results of all 33 U.S. Open playoffs, and how the new two-hole aggregate-score format could have affected the outcomes (asterisks show years where the new format would have produced a different winner):

2008 Tiger Woods over Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole after both shot 71 in the playoff. New format: Woods wins in two holes.

2001* Retief Goosen over Mark Brooks, 70-72. New format: Brooks wins in three holes.

1994* Ernie Els (right) over Loren Roberts in 20 holes after both shot 74 (Colin Montgomerie eliminated after 78). New format: Roberts wins in two holes.

1991 Payne Stewart over Scott Simpson, 75-77. New format: Stewart wins in two holes.

1990 Hale Irwin over Mike Donald in 19 holes after both shot 74. New format: Irwin wins in four holes.

1988 Curtis Strange over Nick Faldo, 71-75. New format: Strange wins in three holes.

1984 Fuzzy Zoeller over Greg Norman, 67-75. New format: Zoeller wins in two holes.

1975 Lou Graham over John Mahaffey, 71-73 New format: Graham wins in two holes.

1971 Lee Trevino over Jack Nicklaus, 68-71. New format: Trevino wins in three holes.

1966* Billy Casper over Arnold Palmer, 69-73. New format: Palmer wins in four holes.

1965 Gary Player over Kel Nagle, 71-74. New format: Player wins in two holes.

1963* Julius Boros (70) over Jacky Cupit (73) and Arnold Palmer (76). New format: Cupit wins in two holes.

1962 Jack Nicklaus over Arnold Palmer, 71-74. New format: Nicklaus wins in two holes.

1957 Dick Mayer over Cary Middlecoff, 72-79. New format: Mayer wins in five holes.

1955 Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan, 69-72. New format: Fleck wins in five holes.

1950* Ben Hogan (69) over Lloyd Mangrum (73) and George Fazio (75). New format: Mangrum wins in two holes.

1947* Lew Worsham over Sam Snead, 69-70. New format: Snead wins in two holes.

1946* Lloyd Mangrum (72-72) over Vic Ghezzi (72-73) and Byron Nelson (72-73) in a 36-hole playoff. New format: Ghezzi wins in two holes.

1940 Lawson Little over Gene Sarazen, 70-73. New format: Little wins in two holes.

1939* Byron Nelson (68-70) over Craig Wood (68-73) and Denny Shute (eliminated after a 76 in the first 18-hole playoff). New format: Wood wins in five holes.

1931* Billy Burke (77-71) over George Von Elm (76-73) in a second 36-hole playoff after the two had tied in the first 36-hole playoff (Burke 73-76 to Von Elm's 75-74). New format: Von Elm wins in two holes.

1929* Bobby Jones (72-69) over Al Espinosa (84-80) in a scheduled 36-hole playoff. New format: Espinosa wins in two holes.

1928* Johnny Farrell (70-73) over Bobby Jones (73-71) in a scheduled 36-hole playoff New format: Jones wins in two holes.

1927 Tommy Armour over Harry Cooper, 76-79. New format: Armour wins in two holes.

1925* Willie Macfarlane over Bobby Jones in a second 18-hole playoff, 72-73, after they shot 75 in the first 18-hole playoff New format: Jones wins in two holes.

1923* Bobby Jones over Bobby Cruickshank, 76-78. New format: Cruickshank wins in three holes.

1919 Walter Hagen over Mike Brady, 77-78. New format: Hagen wins in two holes.

1913* Francis Ouimet (72) over Harry Vardon (77) and Ted Ray (78). New format: Vardon beats Ouimet on the sixth hole.

1911 John McDermott (80) over Mike Brady (82) and George Simpson (86).
New format: McDermott beats Brady on the fifth hole.

1910 Alex Smith (71) over John McDermott (75) and Macdonald Smith (77). New format: Alex Smith beats Macdonald Smith on the third hole.

1908 Fred McLeod over Willie Smith, 77-83. New format: McLeod wins in three holes.

1903 Willie Anderson over David Brown, 82-84. New format: Anderson wins in three holes.

1901* Willie Anderson over Alex Smith, 85-86. New format: Smith wins in four holes.