News & Opinion

Revising history with USGA’s 2-hole playoff

It’s a new day for the U.S. Open. The two-hole, aggregate-score playoff is the wave of the future, with subsequent holes being decided by a sudden-death format (“In the news,” Feb. 27).

But what if every U.S. Open ever held had used this two-hole playoff? How would golf history be different? And would Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed still hear the chimes signifying that an angel got his wings?

Here is my look at golf history from an alternate universe in which the USGA decided 120 years sooner that two holes was enough to identify the best golfer.

The Grand Slammer: I love a good redemption story, and there wasn’t one better than Sam Snead’s at the 1947 U.S. Open. The Slammer, as Snead was known, should’ve won the ’39 Open but he got bad information from a spectator on the tee. Snead thought he needed a birdie to win when a par would have done it. Playing aggressively, Snead made a foolish triple bogey and lost. In 1947 at St. Louis Country Club, Snead got into a two-hole playoff with steady Lew Worsham. Snead birdied the first, parred the second and dispatched Worsham to get his U.S. Open title and, eventually, the career Grand Slam. Pretty sweet.

South of the border: We all love the underdog, and the upset of the century was when Al Espinosa beat the great Bobby Jones in the 1929 U.S. Open. Jones was the American symbol of golf. In the two-hole playoff, though, Jones double-bogeyed the opening hole and made a major champion out of Espinosa, who also won four Mexican Opens. 

Amateur hour … almost: The best underdog story that never was belonged to caddie-turned-amateur Francis Ouimet. He beat long odds to wind up in the 1913 U.S. Open playoff against two of golf’s biggest names, Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. If the 21-year-old kid would’ve knocked off those kingpins, he might have been hailed as the father of amateur golf in America. Instead, the two-hole playoff format meant Ray was eliminated by the third hole. Ouimet gamely took Vardon to the sixth, where his par wasn’t good enough to beat Vardon’s birdie. Ouimet won a pair of U.S. Amateurs and played in eight Walker Cups, but he missed his chance at what could’ve been the greatest game ever played, had he won.

Miracle on ice: It would’ve been the Miracle at Merion if Ben Hogan had come back 16 months after a near-fatal car crash to win the 1950 U.S. Open, and it nearly happened. Hogan was part of a three-way tie at the end of regulation play, but those two extra holes were two too many for a fatigued Hogan. Lloyd Mangrum made birdie on the second playoff hole to eliminate Hogan and George Fazio and gave “The Mustache,” as Mangrum was known, his second Open title in five years. 

The other Jack: He was America’s favorite golfer in the 1960s, but even Arnold Palmer had some bad luck. In the 1963 U.S. Open at The Country Club, early bogeys by Palmer and Julius Boros meant Jacky Cupit claimed the Open after the two-hole playoff. It was Palmer’s second straight playoff loss. In ’62, his opening-hole bogey cost him the Open playoff in what amounted to a home game for him at Oakmont against young Jack Nicklaus, who started with a pair of pars. That heartbreaking loss for Palmer was the rare occasion when fans wished the thrilling showdown had gone a full 18 holes.

The San Francisco charger: The 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club was in danger of going down in history as Palmer’s most disastrous hour. He led Billy Casper by seven shots at the turn in the final round, then performed one of the charges for which he was famous — but in the wrong direction. Palmer sprayed drives all over the back nine, played it in 4 over and allowed Casper to do the unthinkable: tie after 72 holes. Somehow, Palmer charged back from the brink of disaster, settled down and matched Casper’s pars on the first three holes of the playoff, then won it with a striking birdie at the fourth. All of America breathed a sigh of relief. Arnie almost blew it.

Win some, lose some: Sure, Bobby Jones established himself as America’s greatest golfer of the 1920s and early ’30s but he didn’t get there without a few glitches. At 21, Jones had a chance to win the 1923 U.S. Open at Inwood Country Club on Long Island, but he hit his second shot at the 16th hole into the parking lot in the final round and bogeyed the next hole, too. Jones lost the lead and then, in the two-hole playoff, lost the tournament to Bobby Cruickshank. Jones otherwise did well in playoffs. He made a pair of pars to defeat Willie Macfarlane in the 1925 U.S. Open playoff at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club, and beat Johnny Farrell in the 1928 U.S. Open playoff, with the help of a first-hole birdie at Olympia Fields (Ill.). 

The Pittsburgh stealer: Some critics wanted to blame the loss by Colin Montgomerie in the 1994 U.S. Open playoff at steamy Oakmont on the dark-colored shirt that he wore in the blazing sun, but seriously, the playoff lasted only two holes. The shirt was not an excuse. It simply was a wild and crazy two-hole playoff. Ernie Els bogeyed the first hole, then tripled the second while Montgomerie doubled-bogeyed the short par-4 second hole. The duo all but handed the U.S. Open championship to Loren Roberts, as a par-bogey start was good enough. The title made amends for Roberts, considered the best putter on the PGA Tour, after he missed a 6-footer for victory on the 72nd hole.

Southern comfort: He was so nonplussed about winning the 1996 PGA Championship that Mark Brooks never got full credit from the media for finally winning a major. Brooks finally earned validation at Southern Hills in the 2001 U.S. Open, however. His par-birdie effort in the playoff defeated Retief Goosen, who got his own Open title in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.

Willie or won’t he?: If he hadn’t been the only man to win three straight U.S. Opens, from 1903 to 1905, Willie Anderson probably wouldn’t be remembered today. He could’ve been the first four-time champion, however, but in the 1901 Open, he bogeyed Myopia Hunt Club’s fourth hole and lost the playoff to rival Alex Smith.  

Those are great moments in playoff history for which we owe thanks to the USGA. Without the two-hole playoff format, who knows what unmemorable stuff might have happened instead?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle