If this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines ends in a tie after seventy-two holes, the USGA will go to its eighteen-hole Monday playoff, which I’m in favor of as the best way to determine a champion. It’s a full round, not three or four holes where an odd bounce can have a major impact. But the players had best be prepared.
Twenty years ago this June, I was in that situation at The Country Club at Brookline. Curtis Strange and I had finished on Sunday tied at six under par. I don’t have the stats to refer to, but I feel like I missed maybe a half-dozen fairways all four rounds of regulation. Tee to green, I was super solid—I just couldn’t fathom out the greens as well as I would have liked. I was putting with a Ping Anser, which was too fiery at impact. It felt rock hard on those greens. That may have been why I had such trouble with my putting touch.
Otherwise I felt very comfortable. It was a good atmosphere. I was staying in downtown Boston for the week, enjoying the city, going out a bit. I was also playing with my rebuilt swing, and I felt I had the ball flight necessary to compete in any major. I pulled even with Curtis on seventeen, and we each parred the last hole.
Then came the Monday playoff, and all the atmosphere just drained away. The gallery went from forty thousand down to a few thousand. The golf course felt completely empty. I found that difficult to deal with. You get this feeling like, “Gee, what an inconvenience I’ve caused everyone.” There are trucks everywhere starting to pack things up, and the media and the volunteers have all had to change their flights and rebook their hotel rooms. I couldn’t help but think this was not what everyone wanted.
Then there’s the format, which people think of as match play but of course isn’t. Being stroke play, it doesn’t have the familiar patterns of a Ryder Cup singles match, even if it’s only two players. You can’t work your way to an advantage—get a couple of holes up with a few to play—and start thinking, “Okay, how can I weasel out a victory here?” Because you could throw it all away on one hole. You’re very conscious of the other guy. You’re wondering how aggressive you need to be. The other option is to put the blinkers on and say, “I’m just going to play the golf course, and when we’re done let’s see if I’ve got sixty-eight and he’s got seventy, and if it goes like that then I’m the winner.” But, as I learned in ’88, that’s easier said than done.