USGA to look at US Open playoff rules
It should be a sign as difficult to ignore as labor pains.
Twice over the last eight years, the USGA was spared what could have been an awkward moment when two of golf's biggest stars were one putt away from forcing -- and possibly skipping -- an 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open.
Phil Mickelson was the first.
He carried a pager around Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 because his wife was expecting any week, promising to leave if she went into labor. Little did he know that Amy first felt contractions Saturday night and took a drug to slow the labor. Their daughter was born the next day in Arizona. Imagine if Mickelson had made his 25-foot birdie, or if Payne Stewart had missed his 15-foot putt for par.
What would Phil have done next?
Then it was Tiger Woods, who revealed Tuesday that his wife went into the hospital on the first day of the U.S. Open for complications he did not disclose. Woods only needed one more putt to drop in the final round and he would have faced an 18-hole playoff against Angel Cabrera the next day at Oakmont.
Instead, he flew home to Florida that night, and his daughter was born a short time later.
"I landed in Orlando, went straight to the hospital and next thing you know, we have Sam Alexis in our arms," Woods said.
And if there had been a playoff at Oakmont?
"Well, that didn't happen, so it would be all hypothetical," he said. "I'm not going down the road."
The USGA doesn't have to answer that question, either. At least not yet.
These two examples are not the reason the USGA needs to abandon an archaic playoff system. The babies just as easily could have been born during the final round.
But they are reminders of what could have been, and what needs to change.
The U.S. Open is the only major championship that still requires 18 holes to determine a winner in case of a tie. Never mind that its brass can't offer a good reason why it's that way except for, "We're not there yet."
What would have happened if Woods and Cabrera had finished in a tie?
USGA executive director David Fay didn't have to answer the question in 1999 or 2007, although he tried.
"I suspect that Angel -- and I suspect the late Payne -- would have said, 'I'm just not going to show up for the playoff.' Then, it would have forced our hand," Fay said. "Because we would not have said, 'No champion.' It almost falls to the fellow competitor."
If the USGA truly believes an 18-hole playoff is pertinent, then it's guilty of sex discrimination.
The most recent playoff in the U.S. Women's Open showed how obsolete the format really is. Due to fog delays, Annika Sorenstam and Pat Hurst wound up playing 36 holes together on the final day at Newport last year, then returned to play 18 holes the next day. Both agreed that an extra couple of holes Sunday evening would have sufficed.
The USGA changed the Women's Open format to a three-hole playoff, similar to the PGA Championship and the British Open, the oldest championship in golf that uses a four-hole aggregate playoff.
So why is a three-hole playoff good enough for the women, but not the men?
Several years ago, some pointed the discrimination finger at the USGA for offering more prize money to the men than the women.
Fay's argument then was not politically soothing, but entirely accurate -- this is the entertainment business, and the U.S. Open brings in higher TV ratings and far greater revenue. The real discrimination at the time was that the USGA only required an 18-hole qualifier for the Women's Open, whereas the men faced 18-hole local qualifying and 36-hole sectional qualifying.
It was patronizing to the women, and keeping a separate playoff format for the men is no different.
"We concluded that we wanted to have the Women's Open, if at all possible, finishing on a Sunday," Fay said. "If you're asking why don't we have that for the men, for the U.S. Open, we're not there. We're viewing them differently at his point."
Purists might argue that an 18-hole playoff is the fairest method to break a tie.
But if that's the case, why not make it 36 holes? That's the way it used to be, and in the 1931 U.S. Open when Billy Burke and George Von Elm were tied again after a 36-hole playoff, they played 36 more holes the next day before Burke won by a single shot.
The hypocrisy can be found in white circles around most greens at the USGA's biggest tournaments.
Those are drop zones, and they were designed to provide automatic relief from a shot being interfered by grandstands or leaderboards. Fay said such "temporary immovable obstructions" are part of big-time golf, and the drop zones simply speed up play.
Guess what? Television interest, sellouts that bring 40,000 fans to the course, thousands of volunteers who have to get back to work and corporate hospitality also are part of "big-time golf."
Everyone wants to see a winner Sunday, and three extra holes are ample.
So while Woods is busy changing diapers, maybe it's time for the USGA to change its U.S. Open playoff format.
July 4, 2007