With 33 playoffs in its storied history including eight three-man playoffs, the US Open isn’t lacking in late-game heroics or drama. But up until 2018, the US Open playoff format was truly a marathon, requiring any tied linksmen to play an additional 18 holes on the Monday following the tournament. Since 2018, the PGA Tour has adopted a different playoff format, mandating a two-hole aggregate playoff followed by sudden-death playoff rounds.
While this may seem straightforward, the history of the US Open playoff format is an interesting topic and one that every diehard golf fan should know. So if you’ve ever wondered what would happen during a tie, here’s everything you should know about the US Open playoff format.
The current US Open playoff format is relatively new, only dating back to 2018, when the USGA decided to scrap the historical 18-hole playoff format, which had been in existence since the 1950s.
Today, the US Open playoff holes played feature a two-hole aggregate score that’s played on holes No. 1 and No. 18 — at least in the 2022 iteration of the tournament. If the players are still tied after two holes, the format switches to sudden death. The golfers then alternate between the 1st and 18th holes until a winner is crowned.
While holes No. 1 and No. 18 worked at the 2022 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the exact holes may change depending on where the tournament is located. The US Open playoff rules also state that the two holes must both be par-4 holes, which may require the holes to change based on the course itself.
To date, the change to this format hasn’t been necessary, but only by the slimmest of margins. In the five tournaments from 2018 to 2022, three have been decided by a single stroke, but none have gone to the two-hole aggregate — at least yet.
Dating back to 1895, the US Open is the second-oldest professional golf tournament in the world, trailing only the British Open, which started in 1860. Over this 125-plus year span, the tournament has featured numerous playoff formats, but all required an extra day to sort out the winner — at least in most cases.
From 1895 to the 1930s, the US Open playoff format required golfers tied after 18 holes to play 18 extra holes on the Monday following the tournament. This first occurred in 1901, when future Hall of Famer Willie Anderson outlasted Alex Smith to take home the championship. This format remained through 1927, accounting for 10 of the playoffs in the history of the tournament.
However, the US Open inexplicably changed the rule from 1928 to 1931. During this stretch, tournament officials required a 36-hole playoff round that was played on the Monday and Tuesday following the tournament. If the golfers were still tied, the golfers would play an additional 36 holes to settle the match.
Although the 36-hole US Open playoff format only lasted four years, three of them went to a playoff after the final round. This format also led to the longest US Open of all time. In 1931, Billy Burke defeated George Von Elm after playing 144 holes of gold — including two extra 36-hole rounds after being tied in regulation and after the first tiebreaker. This remains the most playoff holes in golf history — a record that’s unlikely to ever be broken.
Following the ridiculously long 1931 US Open, tournament organizers switched back to the original 18-hole US Open playoff format. This format remained until the 1950s, although only the 1946 tournament required more than one 18-hole playoff round to determine the winner.
In an effort to curb overly lengthy US Open playoffs, the tournament established sudden death in the 1950s. During this time, an 18-hole playoff was still used. But if no winner was determined after 18 holes, the playoff would consist of sudden death.
However, not a single sudden-death playoff was needed until 1990, when Hale Irwin sank a birdie putt to defeat Mike Donald and become the oldest US Open winner at 45-years-old. Between 1947 and 1990, all 12 tournaments that went to a playoff were settled within the 18-hole playoff, effectively ignoring the new rule for a sudden-death format.
While the US Open playoff format didn’t change between 1990 and 2017 — it was still 18 holes followed by a sudden-death format — three tournaments required sudden death during this period:
The 2008 US Open marked the final time an 18-hole plus sudden-death format was used, and to many golfers and fans, not a moment too soon.
The women’s US Open also changed its playoff format in 2018. However, the women switched from a three-hole aggregate to a two-hole aggregate followed by sudden death to decide who takes home the prize money at the top of the leaderboard.
The decision to change the US Open playoff rules wasn’t taken lightly — just like the decision of The Masters to change its cut rule in 2020. However, brevity and instant gratification are two of the hallmarks of modern society, and the USGA deemed that a change was necessary:
“We know how important it is to everyone in the golf world to see play conclude on the Sunday of a major championship and to award the trophy to the champion. After receiving input from a variety of constituents, including players, fans, volunteers, officials, and our broadcast partners, it clearly came across as something that everyone valued and would benefit from.” - Mike Davis, then CEO of the USGA
More importantly, finishing the tournament on the same Sunday as the conclusion of the tournament made fiscal, logistical, and fanatical sense. No extra scheduling is necessary, no overtime pay is needed, fans can watch golf without skipping or blowing off work on Monday, and no added organization is necessary.
Plus, what’s more exciting than a two-hole aggregate followed by sudden death?
In the history of the US Open, the playoff format has played a role in determining the winner 33 out of 122 times — or about 27% of the time. That’s quite a high percentage, especially in comparison to other PGA events.
However, the US Open playoff also has some interesting tidbits that fans may enjoy. If you’re searching for some trivial knowledge to impress your friends, golf coach, or family members, here are some fun facts about the US Open playoff format.
A three-way playoff has occurred eight times in the history of the US Open, but only one since 1963. At the 1994 US Open, Ernie Els defeated Colin Montgomerie during the first 18 holes and then beat Loren Robers after two playoff holes.
The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been the site of the US Open four times, including the 122nd US Open in 2022. However, it has the notable distinction of being ground zero for some golfing heroics.
With the exception of the 2022 tournament, the other three US Opens at Brookline have gone to a playoff — in 1913, 1963, and 1988.
The 1988 tournament may have been the most exciting as Curtis Strange and Nick Faldo battled for almost the entire tournament. Tied after 72 holes, the two went back and forth for the 18-hole playoff with Strange eventually prevailing for a $180,000 payout.
While several golfers have been entangled in a US Open playoff, only Hall of Famer Willie Anderson has prevailed in a playoff more than once. Anderson won the US Open in playoffs in 1901 and 1903, giving him two titles in three years. He’d eventually become the only golfer ever to win three consecutive US Open tournaments (1903 to 1905) and is on the elite list of golfers to win the US Open four times — along with Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and Bobby Jones.
The US Open hasn’t seen a playoff since Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate in 2008. This 14-year playoff drought is by far the longest in the history of the tournament. The second-longest playoff drought in US Open history occurred between 1976 and 1983. Eight consecutive tournaments finished without the need for a playoff round, bookended by playoff victories from Lou Graham in 1975 and Fuzzy Zoeller in 1984.
Despite being one of the greatest golfers of all time, Arnold Palmer has surprisingly only won the US Open once. But what makes this even more astounding is another dubious record that Palmer set during his playoff days.
Arnold Palmer is the only golfer to lose three playoffs at the US Open, falling to Jack Nicklaus in 1962 and 1967 and Billy Casper in 1966.
The 2022 US Open didn’t go to a playoff, but it still had all the drama of a playoff. Will Zalatoris missed a 14-foot putt on the 18th hole that would have sent the tournament to a playoff, but pushed it wide. As a result, Matt Fitzpatrick took home the title, beating both Zalatoris and Scottie Scheffler by a single stroke.
Other majors and tournaments have their own playoff format that often varies from the US Open. In case you were curious, here are some of the other playoff formats around golf:
The US Open playoff format may not affect you directly, but it will give you a chance to watch the tournament in its entirety on a Sunday afternoon or evening. With the lack of a tournament on Monday, you won’t have to worry about playing hooky or calling in sick.
Well, on second thought, why not do it anyway? Unless you have an office putting green, how else are you going to find time to head to the golf course on a Monday?
Hopefully, you can find the right time to practice, and with any luck, you can beat your friends and coworkers the next time you’re on the links. Just make sure that you don’t leave anything to chance — playoff golf isn’t for the faint of heart.