Ranking the Most Exciting U.S. Open Playoffs
September 9, 2020 LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. By Michael Trostel, USGA
Tiger Woods (left) and Rocco Mediate had an epic 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008. (John Mummert/USGA)

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It may be a few months later than in a typical year, but in 2020, September is the month for playoffs – and we’re not just talking about the Stanley Cup Finals and NBA Finals. Playoffs in the U.S. Open Championship date back more than a century – to 1901, when Willie Anderson edged Alex Smith by a single stroke (85 to 86) to win the first of his four titles.

There have been 33 U.S. Open playoffs in all, many of them close, including one that went 72 extra holes. Others were more decisive, like in 1929 when Bob Jones thumped Al Espinosa by 23 strokes, the largest margin in a U.S. Open playoff.

The current 11-year stretch without a playoff is the longest in the championship’s 120-year history – which may mean we are due for extra holes at Winged Foot. But with the recent format change to a two-hole aggregate, a champion is likely to be crowned on Sunday evening.

No matter the number of holes played – 2, 18, 36 or even 72 – U.S. Open playoffs are always accompanied by drama, nerves and a sense of magnitude knowing what is on the line. Here is our ranking of the nine most exciting playoffs in U.S. Open history:

9. 1990: Hale Irwin (74-3) defeats Mike Donald (74-4)

Despite being a two-time U.S. Open champion, Irwin needed a special exemption to get in the field at Medinah – and he took full advantage. Trailing by seven strokes early on Sunday, Irwin surged up the leader board with birdies on five of his final eight holes, including a 45-footer on the 72nd to force a playoff with Donald.

In the playoff, Irwin trailed the entire back nine until Donald’s bogey on the 18th left them tied. On the first extra hole, Irwin sank a 10-foot birdie putt to earn his third title. At age 45, he is the oldest U.S. Open champion in history.

8. 1950: Ben Hogan (69) defeats Lloyd Mangrum (73) and George Fazio (75)

The lasting image of the 1950 U.S. Open is Hy Peskin’s iconic photo of Hogan, perfectly balanced, holding his follow-through, after his 1-iron approach to Merion’s 72nd hole. But after his two-putt par, Hogan still had work to do the following day against Mangrum and Fazio.

Though Hogan’s 1-iron and golf shoes were stolen out of his locker overnight, the Hawk persevered in the playoff, overcoming an achy body that had been ravaged in a near-fatal car accident 16 months earlier to win the second of his four U.S. Open titles.

7. 1955: Jack Fleck (69) defeats Ben Hogan (72)

As he walked off the 18th green after completing 72 holes at The Olympic Club, Hogan flipped his golf ball to the USGA’s Joe Dey, saying, “This is for Golf House,” believing he had won a record fifth U.S. Open. But after the television broadcast went off the air, Fleck birdied the 69th and 72nd holes to tie Hogan and force a playoff.

In what seemed like a mismatch between Hogan, the four-time U.S. Open champion, and Fleck, an unheralded pro from Davenport, Iowa, the underdog was up to the challenge. Fleck parred the first seven holes and birdied Nos. 8, 9 and 10, never trailing in what is considered one of the great upsets in golf history.

6. 1971: Lee Trevino (68) defeats Jack Nicklaus (71)

On a hot and humid afternoon at Merion, Trevino reached into his golf bag for a fresh glove and came across a toy rubber snake. He took it out to entertain the crowd and playfully tossed it to Nicklaus as they shared a laugh in the moments before the playoff.

Once play began, Nicklaus bogeyed the second hole and double-bogeyed the third. He made four birdies coming in, but it wasn’t enough to catch Trevino, whose near-flawless round gave him his second title in four years.

5. 1966: Billy Casper (69) defeats Arnold Palmer (73)

Palmer seemed to be cruising to a second U.S. Open title on Sunday afternoon, but his seven-stroke lead evaporated on Olympic’s inward nine with five bogeys. Casper caught the struggling Palmer in one of the more stunning turnarounds in championship golf.

In the playoff, Palmer again held a lead as the players made the turn, but three bogeys and a double bogey coming in ended Palmer’s hopes. While Casper earned his second title, it was Palmer’s third U.S. Open playoff defeat in five years.

Jack Nicklaus' first professional victory came in an 18-hole playoff over hometown favorite Arnold Palmer in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont C.C. (USGA Archives)

4. 1931: Billy Burke (73-76–149; 77-71–148) defeats George Von Elm (75-74–149; 76-73–149)

For a brief stretch in the late 1920s and early 1930s, U.S. Open playoffs were lengthened to 36 holes. That meant a marathon week of golf for Burke and Von Elm, who each played a total of 144 holes because their first playoff ended in a tie, necessitating another 36 holes.

The 72 playoff holes shattered all major championship records, but it could have been even more. The players were tied through 32 holes of the second playoff before Burke pulled ahead to outlast Von Elm for the title.

3. 1913: Francis Ouimet (72) defeats Harry Vardon (77) and Ted Ray (78)

In a result so unlikely it inspired a best-selling book and a movie, Ouimet, who grew up caddieing at The Country Club, birdied the 71st hole to tie Vardon and Ray, widely considered the best players in the world at the time. In a driving rain, the 20-year-old amateur played steady golf during the playoff to earn the crown the next day.

While Vardon’s win in 1900 gave the U.S. Open credibility as a major championship, it was Ouimet’s victory in 1913 that put golf on the front pages of American newspapers for the first time and earned him the title of America’s first golf hero.

2. 1962: Jack Nicklaus (71) defeats Arnold Palmer (74)

Two years after Nicklaus finished runner-up to Palmer as a 20-year-old amateur in the 1960 U.S. Open, the Golden Bear returned the favor at Oakmont, 35 miles from Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa. In front of a decidedly pro-Palmer gallery, Nicklaus erased a five-stroke deficit in the final round to force a playoff.

Nicklaus jumped out to a four-stroke lead through six holes, but Palmer battled back, pulling within one before a three-putt bogey on the 13th dashed his chances. In total, Nicklaus three-putted just once over 90 holes, while Palmer had 10 three-putts. It was the first of Nicklaus’ 18 major championship victories.

1. 2008: Tiger Woods (71-4) defeats Rocco Mediate (71-5)

Hobbled by a fractured leg and torn ACL, Woods stayed in contention with grit and sheer force of will. Then he delivered arguably the greatest putt in U.S. Open history – a downhill 15-foot birdie putt that snuck in the right edge to force a playoff with Mediate.

In the playoff, Mediate reeled off three consecutive birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 15 to take the lead, but for a second consecutive day Woods birdied the 18th to force extra holes. With Mediate in trouble on the first hole, a two-putt par gave Woods his third U.S. Open title.