There are many different formats used by golf events to decide a winner in case there is a tie at the end of regular play. At the championship level, tournament committees are very particular as to which format should be used in deciding a champion, and in the case of the United States Open Championship, the format followed is not without controversy.
Players tied at end of regulation
A regulation United States Open Championship consists of 72 holes played by each competitor. If at the end of 72 holes, two or more players are tied for the lowest scores in the field, they must play an 18-hole stroke-play match, most likely the day after the final round. The format is aggregate score, not match play and the player who scores lower for the 18 holes is the winner. The loser of the playoff is declared runner-up. If three or more players are tied for the lead after 72 holes, then all players proceed to the 18-hole playoff. The player with the low score in the playoff is declared the winner while all other players participating in the playoff -- regardless of scores -- are deemed to have finished tied for second place.
Players tied after 18-hole playoff
After the 18-hole playoff has been completed and competitors are still tied, a sudden-death playoff ensues. Both players proceed to a hole pre-determined by the tournament committee and will play that one hole. If after one hole, the players are still tied, they will continue to the next selected hole. This process will continue until one player achieves a lower score on a hole, then the match is declared over. If three or more players are tied after 72 holes of regulation play, all will go the 18-hole playoff, but only those players who are tied for the low score after the 18-hole playoff may proceed to the sudden-death playoff. For example, if four players (A, B, C and D) are tied after 72 holes, they all participate in a 18-hole playoff in which A, B and C are tied for the low score, then D will not participate in the sudden-death playoff. In the sudden-death playoff, A and B tie for the same score lower then C, then C is eliminated and A and B only will continue to the next playoff hole. If A defeats B on the next playoff hole, then A is declared the champion while B, C and D are all deemed to have finished tied for second place.
The current playoff format was not always in use by the United States Golf Association in conducting this championship. In the 1920s, if players were still tied after 18 holes, they would not go to sudden death; instead another 18-hole playoff would ensue as did happen in 1925 when William McFarlane beat Bobby Jones. In 1928, the USGA conducted a 36-hole playoff as opposed to just an 18-hole playoff, and would do so again in deciding the champion in 1929 and 1931. In 1939, the USGA went back to an 18-hole playoff, but did not institute the sudden-death format until 1990 when Hale Irwin and Mike Donald both shot 74 in the 18-hole playoff. Instead of playing 18 more holes, the two players went to a sudden death, where Irwin won 4-5. In its history, the U.S. Open has been decided by a playoff 33 times, utilizing the sudden-death procedure in three of them (1990, 1994 and 2008.)
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