SAN DIEGO — Could this United States Open have been any better, any more exciting or any more suspenseful?
Well, yes. It could have been all those things and more if only it had ended Sunday night.
The heroics by Tiger Woods on Saturday at Torrey Pines were beyond incredible, bordering on absurd. Two ocean-liner-length eagle putts and a one-bounce-to-the-bottom chip-in. Sunday, the finish turned into a Three Musketeers bar and looked as if we’d end up with a sleeve of golfers in a playoff. The aforementioned Woods, of course, along with crowd-pleaser Rocco Mediate (c’mon, who isn’t rooting for an everyman named Rocco?) and England’s Lee Westwood.
Come back Monday for an 18-hole playoff? That’s a day later and 10 dollars short (I factored inflation in for you — you’re welcome). That is so 19th century, USGA.
Here’s how exciting a Monday 18-hole playoff is. It’s the equivalent of Eli Manning leading the New York Giants on a thrilling drive to tie the Super Bowl in the waning seconds against the New England Patriots and then John Madden announces after the gun sounds, “Great! I can’t wait to come back tomorrow to watch the overtime!”
It’s buzzkill with a capital B, a capital Z and a capital KILL.
When Woods holed that must-make-to-tie birdie putt on the 72nd hole, as you knew he surely would, and went into full celebration mode (or severe abdominal spasms, I’m not sure which), the Open’s excitement meter was pointing toward the red zone marked ‘Ready To Explode.’ Monday morning at 9 a.m. Pacific time when Rocco and Tiger return to the first tee, it’s going to be hovering over the brown zone labeled ‘Must We?’
Monday playoffs are inevitably anticlimactic. Maybe with Tiger involved, the hysteria level will solve that issue. Tiger has never gone to an 18-holer before. But I don’t hear anybody waxing poetic about the unforgettable shootout between Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks at Southern Hills in 2001.
Bet you don’t recall a single shot from Payne Stewart’s 18-hole win over Scott Simpson at Hazeltine in ’91. You’re excused if you don’t remember anything about the entire ’90s, period. All right, so maybe Hale Irwin’s winning putt on the 18th green at Medinah and his crazed, high-fiving run made that Monday playoff worthwhile in the ’90 Open.
That actually happened on the 72nd hole and is pretty much all anyone remembers about that tournament. In fact, Irwin and Mike Donald were still tied after the extra 18, so they went to sudden death. If USGA officials really were sticklers for tradition, they would’ve gone a second 18 that day. So if the playoff goes to sudden death after 18 holes, why don’t we just cut out the middleman and go right to sudden death?
It’s good enough for the Masters. Name a sudden-death Masters finish where you don’t remember every shot. Fuzzy Zoeller makes a putt and flings his putter. Larry Mize chips in. Nick Faldo holes a big putt. Raymond Floyd dunks a shot in a pond. Tiger knocks out Chris DiMarco with a birdie putt. Mike Weir out-survives Len Mattiace.
All right, I’ve got a shred of traditionalist in me. Sudden death is dramatic but maybe too quick after a 72-hole marathon for a major championship. What’s wrong with the sudden-death format was best exposed at last month’s Players Championship when the tournament’s playoff between Sergio Garcia and Paul Goydos was decided by a capricious gust of wind on a par-3 hole where the players were hitting pitching wedges. Pitching wedges? What kind of way is that to decide a champion? You might as well just have a chip-off or maybe a punt, pass and kick contest.
The British Open has it right. A four-hole playoff determined last year’s Open at Carnoustie, where Padraig Harrington beat Garcia. Four holes is enough time for heroics or time to recover from a costly mistake. And the tournament still ends Sunday night when the excitement is at a fever pitch. The British playoffs have been memorable. Greg Norman took an ‘X’ on the final hole when he skulled his bunker shot out of bounds by the clubhouse at Troon in ’89. Ernie Els survived a four-man battle in ’02, although he lost a playoff to Todd Hamilton two years later.
Three holes are enough if they’re the right three holes. The Masters could have the most anticipated playoff ever by using Amen Corner — the 11th, 12th and 13th holes. Fans and media might even root for a playoff there. The same goes for the Players, where the talk about the dramatic finish of the par-5 16th, island-green 17th and difficult 18th make them a natural playoff choice — and much better than a one-shotter to the most famous gimmick in modern golf.
The South Course at Torrey Pines isn’t one of America’s greatest golf courses, but this was one of our greatest Opens. The USGA got the setup right — firm greens, challenging but not unplayable rough, the occasional reachable par 5 and (heavens to P.J. Boatwright), even a 267-yard drivable par-4 on Sunday. It was the stuff of genius while protecting par — the winning score was a modest one under par. All that good stuff will be overlooked, however, by the inconvenience, awkwardness and potential so-what factor of a Monday finish.
The same huge, enthusiastic crowds won’t be back. Hey, it’s a workday. The same TV viewers won’t be back. It’ll be mid-afternoon, not prime time. And if Cinderella turns back into a pumpkin, or whatever happened when the fairytale clock struck midnight, and the playoff is a blowout, a tremendous event won’t get its just due.
I have more to say on the subject, but right now I’ve got to call my travel agent. I have to rebook a flight home (that’ll probably cost $1200), scare up a hotel room and extend my rental car contract.
Thanks a lot, USGA. Except for one little thing, it was a hell of a week.