Second Shouldn’t Suck: An Argument for Scrapping Playoffs

August 31, 2016

I am dedicating, and eventually turning over, this column to my friend Fred. Fred Anton of Philadelphia is 82, and for nearly 30 years now he has been one of my most trusted tutors on delicate subjects, such as golf and life. But today’s subject—the role of a playoff in golf—is one I never understood him on, until recently. Fred’s persistent drumbeat, coupled with the Summer Games in Rio (now that has a nice ring to it!) and the FedEx Cup playoffs (the Tour should trademark the word brandingop) has made me see the world anew.

Fred caddied in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, an experience that shaped his life in various and profound ways. After four rounds, as every dues-paying member of the USGA knows, there was a three-way tie for first: George Fazio, a local pro (whose nephew Tom became a celebrated course architect); Lloyd Mangrum, who had won the ’46 Open; and Ben Hogan, returning to Open play after his devastating 1949 car accident. In subsequent years, Fred caddied many times for Fazio at Merion. Mangrum had played the first two rounds with Fred’s boss for the week, Lawson Little, so he felt a connection to him. And Hogan was Hogan—one of Fred’s boyhood heroes, an icon of sport and manliness. In Fred’s mind, they were all winners. He was never able to relate to Tiger’s inelegant phrase: “Second sucks.” Fred has said to me more than once, “I strenuously object to that idea, that second is the first loser. You’ve beaten 154 other players to get there! Our society needs more winners, not more losers.” There are layers and layers of meaning to what Fred is saying, some of it relating to societal, and individual, notions of self-esteem.

The record book, of course, has its own summary of that Open at Merion. It shows that Hogan won the three-man, 18-hole Sunday playoff. Fred—the son of a railway mailman, a 16-year-old in the final days of his junior year at Haverford High—watched every shot. Hogan’s victory was a great triumph, but Fred identified with Fazio and Mangrum too.

Years later, Fred developed a novel theory: Ties in golf should not be settled by a playoff. Not a 36-hole playoff, as was the case at the 1896 British Open, which Harry Vardon won over J.H. Taylor. Not a sudden-death playoff, which is how Adam Scott won the 2013 Masters over Angel Cabrera, needing only two holes to do it. Not a three-hole aggregate playoff, which is how Vijay Singh won the 2004 PGA Championship. “Have co-champions!” Fred says. Or three. Or four. Fred’s point is that the goal at the beginning of a 72-hole stroke-play tournament is to shoot the lowest score over four rounds. All a tie means is that more than one person has achieved that goal.

Fred and I are friends with Mike Donald, who was tied with Hale Irwin after 72 holes at the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah. After an 18-hole playoff, they were still tied. They went to sudden death, and Irwin made a birdie on the 91st hole to win, according to the record book. Mike believes that was an equitable way to decide the matter. He feels you have to have a playoff, you have to declare a winner. Fred vehemently disagrees.

Only recently have I come to understand Fred’s point. During the Olympics, I was walking down Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan, looking at an electronic billboard that posted the medal total. I can’t recall what numbers were up then, but when it was all over the U.S. had 121 medals, China had 70 and Great Britain had 67. In that celebrated accounting, the silver medals and the bronze medals counted just as much as the gold medals. Those Periodic Table of the Elements names are also so much more impactful and poetic than second and third and first. Fred is one to see the poetry of life. “Did you see Matt Kuchar on that podium with his bronze medal?” Fred asked me. “He was beaming!” Kuchar said he never knew finishing third could feel so good. Henrik Stenson will tell you that second does not suck.

“Let’s say a marathon finished in a dead heat,” Fred said on another occasion. “Would you have a 100-yard dash after it to decide the winner? That’s what these sudden-death playoffs are! Give them both a medal.”

In Fred’s accounting of careers—establishing all-time greats and weighing credentials for Hall of Fame voting—outright wins over 72 holes would have higher stature than playoff ties. But being a joint winner would of course have more stature than the current system, where a playoff loss downgrades a golfer to a second-place finish. Consider Justin Leonard’s career. He won the 1992 U.S. Amateur. He won the 1997 British Open. He was in the 1999 British Open playoff with Jean Van de Velde and Paul Lawrie. He was in the 2004 PGA Championship playoff with Singh and Chris DiMarco. Three major titles, a U.S. Am, a Players win, and a total of 15 PGA Tour titles? That summary would make him a lock for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Nick Faldo, Fred notes, won two of his three green jackets in playoffs. He loses some status for that. But he finished 72 holes at the 1988 U.S. Open tied with Curtis Strange. He gains for that.

The gents at Augusta National, by the way, seem to understand something about the value of co-championship (in addition to their devotion to amateurism). The U.S. Amateur runner-up is invited to play in the following year’s Masters, provided he has not turned professional. Brad Dalke, newly 19, did not look particularly devastated to lose, 6&4, to Curtis Luck in the U.S. Amateur earlier this month at Oakland Hills. That’s because Dalke knew he was going back to Oklahoma for his sophomore year of college, and what could be more fun than that? And also because in April he’ll be playing in the Masters. Fred will tell you: The kid’s a winner.

“We need more winners in our society,” Fred wrote to me in a recent email. Golf is an ideal place, he said, to start this movement.

“Any measure of the result of a shorter competition brings the element of luck into the result,” Fred wrote. “The shorter the playoff, the less validity it has in measuring sustained excellence.

“The joint winner concept would elevate the career of many who perform only one time at star-level capacity. It would put the accomplishment of many in different light, a more egalitarian light.

“The worst result of the playoff method is it overvalues the victory of the so-called winner. He did not do what the other sole winners did. He did not beat the entire field over 72 holes. The playoff winner has not achieved victory in 72 holes, but only a tie. A joint winner arrangement is more reflective of a golf accomplishment. The method of turning a joint winner into a loser is demeaning. It does not reflect the reality of the event. A playoff gives too much value to any one shot. It brings luck into play to a great degree.”

Fred points out that for many years on Tour, when two players were tied through 72 holes and then went into a playoff, they made a private agreement to split the prize money. If the first-place was $30,000 and second was $20,000, the two players would agree that each would get $25,000, regardless of the outcome of the playoff. There were practical considerations to that agreement, but on another level the players understood: We’ve both won here.

Compare that to the payouts for these FedEx Cup playoffs. The winner gets $10 million. The runner-up gets $3 million.

“That’s another example of winner-takes-all,” Fred told me recently. Not literally, of course, but you get the idea. Fred spent his life in insurance and politics. He doesn’t like the concept of winner-takes-all. He likes the concept of winnings distributed more equitably than they are now.

Fred was the CEO of a company. He has seen the modern CEO turn into “an emperor” and he doesn’t like it.

“Winner-takes-all skewers our values,” Fred says. “It makes the 1% so much more valued than the rest of society.”

Fred doesn’t think that is right, and he doesn’t think it is fair. The reputations of George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum, he says—among many others—deserve to be far more enhanced.