The scene is a major national golf championship in the final moments of the closing round. The pairing of Arnold Palmer and Al Geiberger is just putting out on the 17th hole. On the fairway behind them, waiting to hit their second shots, are Billy Casper and Ray Floyd. Walking to the 17th tee and about to drive are Jack Nicklaus and Dave Marr. Coming up to the 16th green are Bobby Nichols and Tony Jacklin. A few members of the huge gallery are now and then able to catch fleeting glimpses of the eight players, all of whom are tied for the lead. The long pageant of golf has never produced quite so thrilling a finish. An eight-way playoff" is in the making.
On the terrace of the clubhouse an anxious little hive of tournament officials is nervously watching the leader board. As the standings of the players are posted hole after hole, one official or another will raise his eyes heavenward in supplication. Silently the words run through his mind as if on a TelePrompTer. "Please, God," the words say, "let there be no tie. Please, Lord, let there be no playoff. We beseech thee, oh Lord, let one of these fellows—we don't care which one—but let one of them get some birdies or something and win it now so we won't have to have an 18-hole playoff tomorrow."
In the press tent a few dozen yards away several hundred of the world's most famous golf writers are glumly watching the action on television. Each is mentally preparing a lead paragraph that will assure his report of this historic tournament a permanent home in some anthology of the world's great sports stories. Every 20 seconds or so, as the excitement on the golf course is interrupted for a minute or two of commercials, these illustrious personalities of journalism also cast their eyes heavenward, and much the same prayer passes through their minds. "Please, God, let there be no tie. Please, Lord, no playoff tomorrow."
As officials, press, players and even the most insatiable fans know, there is no atmosphere in sport quite so deadening and anticlimactic as that which hangs over a golf course on the day of a playoff. The clubhouse and grounds, so vital and festive the day before with the flags flying and the landscape ablaze with the color and bustle of the gallery, looks like an abandoned junkyard with a few sportily dressed derelicts wandering among the refuse. Crumpled paper cups, empty beer cans, sandwich wrappers and the rest of the American public's wake decorate what was once a lovely green countryside. Children in hot pursuit of one another somehow predominate, while disconsolate officials and other involved parties who had fully expected to be elsewhere stand around in unhappy knots discussing their woes. The players involved in the playoff must dress for the occasion in a darkened and lonely locker room, which only 24 hours earlier had reverberated with the animated chatter of contestants. Outside, a desperate hunt for something to eat or drink is to no avail, for the concessionaires have folded their tents and moved elsewhere.
And yet, based on the last six years, the odds are that either this week's Masters or the U.S. Open in June will end up in a tie and require an 18-hole playoff. There have been six Masters-Open playoffs during this period, and one must go all the way back to the Palmer-Player-Finsterwald match at the Masters in 1962 to find one that held any real suspense. That was the time Palmer swiftly erased Player's three-stroke lead in a matter of minutes on the 10th through the 12th holes, but after that the game was over. The other five playoffs dissolved into boredom well before the end for all except the players themselves and sometimes even for them. The three-way Masters playoff between Nicklaus, Tommy Jacobs and Gay Brewer in 1966 took more than five hours to complete, finishing in almost total darkness with the contestants in a semicomatose state. No wonder Nicklaus observed recently, "To me [the 18-hole playoff] comes as an anticlimax. You key yourself up to go four rounds, and there's a letdown if the tournament goes an extra day."
The 18-hole playoff was the logical child of a gentler, more relaxed era when golf was still a pastime instead of a multimillion-dollar business. In those carefree, bygone days at Augusta, Brookline, Cleveland, Philadelphia and points east or west, everyone arrived by train or car and allowed a day or two or three for travel at both ends of the tournament. A lost day here or there was a little extra time for pleasantries and good fellowship. It was only fair and natural to play off a tie over the full 18-hole course or even twice around the course for 36 holes. Even then the added day of golf lacked dramatic appeal. One such interminably boring playoff saw Bobby Jones crush Al Espinosa by 23 strokes in 1929.
Today, with TV schedules, business appointments, airplane reservations and the other adjuncts of modern living knocked askew by the additional day of golf, there is no estimating the cost to all concerned in both dollars and frazzled nerves. Take, as a small example, the problem of the airlines. Suddenly, around 6 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, the Eastern Airlines switchboard lights up as it begins getting calls that virtually wipe out the entire passenger list of a DC-8 as some 80 TV personnel, several dozen sportswriters and a payload of officials cancel out. Everyone then races back to his motel to get a room for the night only to find that a convention of the Amalgamated Steamfitters has taken over the entire place. The next day appointments from New York to San Francisco are canceled, a supermarket must open without the presence of Arnold Palmer, and an exhibition golf match to aid cerebral palsy must be called off in Tuscaloosa because one of the players must remain for the playoff. At a cost of some $40,000, poor old TV must preempt a couple of those stirring late afternoon movies, although by now the networks have learned to presell as much of the playoff time as possible, just in case.
The solution, of course, is sudden death, an extra hole or two or whatever it takes to break the tie. For several years now, the PGA has substituted sudden death for 18-hole playoffs in its weekly tournaments. Sudden death, while not without occasional hitches, seems the only sensible solution compatible with the breakneck tempo of our lives.
Musing on the subject recently, Frank Cherkinian, who is the Arnold Palmer of golf's TV producers, observed, "With a sudden-death playoff you get an equally exciting tournament all the way through. It is just a 73- or 74-hole tournament instead of 72.... I don't feel it is fair to forget the television spectator who can't see the televised playoff on Monday any more than it is fair for the gallery spectator, the guy who has bought a season ticket, who works on Monday, not to see the ultimate finish of the tournament."
The only serious objection to sudden death is that the first or second extra hole could give one of the players a slight advantage, as happened at Palm Springs this year. Palmer, who holds the lifetime record for playoffs with 22 (13 victories, nine losses, including three losses in the last six U.S. Opens), finished the Bob Hope in a tie with Deane Beman. The second playoff hole—the 16th—was a 435-yard par-4. Palmer, with his power, was able to reach the green with a drive and a five-iron. Beman, a short hitter, needed a four-wood for his second shot. He bogeyed the hole and lost the match.
In this country today only the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship cling doggedly to the 18-hole playoff, and it is high time that even these three most important events on the calendar examine whether or not that extra day of golf has become an anachronism. Joseph C. Dey Jr., of the USGA, put the whole case succinctly when he said, "It is really a matter of what is the fairest test of golf for the players. The 18-hole playoff has certainly become a terrible imposition on a lot of people these days, but the most important consideration is the players."
Modern golf's three leading money winners and, not coincidentally, those with the largest number of playoffs under their belts—Palmer with his 22, Casper with eight and Nicklaus with seven—are not yet ready for a change.
"I think it's essential that we continue the 18-hole playoffs for the major championships," Palmer has said. "The sudden-death playoff isn't fair to the loser; there are too many freak circumstances. The 18-hole playoff gives a player the opportunity to show his wares, though it isn't all that conclusive, either."
Casper agrees. "We have a much truer test of championship golf with an 18-hole playoff," he observes. "I've won and lost both ways. Sometimes it goes for you, other times it goes against you. But too often in sudden death you'll see a player win with a long putt or a chip-in." Obviously, his recent loss to Johnny Pott's chip-in on the first extra hole of sudden death at the Crosby was fresh in his mind.
Nicklaus, too, goes along. "For a major title," he says, "I feel that most players want an 18-hole playoff. It gives them a fair go at it and reduces the element of luck. I'd hate to see the format changed."
But a shadow of doubt is creeping up, and it grows as the golfing audience grows. "It has to be more exciting," Cherkinian says, "to know that no player can afford to make a mistake, which is the way it should be. And for the most part, the better player will survive sudden death because of the superiority of his determination, skill and courage. It all boils down to maintaining dramatic impetus, something that golf by its nature often doesn't possess. It can be dull, but when it's exciting, nothing is as exciting."
Nothing in sport, certainly is much more exciting than a sudden-death playoff.