Bob Spear

Do or die, Masters’ playoff format gets it right

April 5, 2014 

Bubba Watson hits his tee shot on hole No. 1 in 2013 during The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • PLAYOFFS AT THE OTHER MAJORS

    U.S. OPEN: The U.S. Open remains the only major that uses an 18-hole format to break ties. The oldest American major briefly used a 36-hole format but reverted to the 18-hole format in the late 1930s.

    BRITISH OPEN: Golf’s oldest major now uses a four-hole playoff if golfers are tied. The format was introduced in 1986 and first used in 1989 when Mark Calcavecchia won against Greg Norman and Wayne Grady.

    PGA: After using an 18-hole playoff starting in 1958 and the sudden-death format starting in 1977, the PGA of America in the late 1990s switched to an aggregate three-hole format for its playoffs. Tiger Woods defeated Bob May in 2000 in the first three-hole playoff.

Larry Mize’s chip, Bubba Watson’s hook, Scott Hoch’s putt, Raymond Floyd’s mental gaffe, Adam Scott’s bull’s-eye in the fading light . . . some of the stokes of genius – or infamy – that make Masters playoffs such scintillating theater.

The battles in regulation are special; the adage that the tournament does not start until the back nine on Sunday is so true. But the extra holes ratchet the pressure another notch or two. And comparing a Masters playoffs with the formula used in other major championships is like matching a Ferrari with a Model T.

The British Open and PGA Championship offer multi-hole playoffs, but at least those events strive to finish on Sunday. The U.S. Open presents an 18-hole slog a day later. With the Masters, it’s here, it’s now, it’s do or die.

Even so, the last two Masters raised the bar on the excitement meter. Really now, could anyone imagine Watson’s wedge from the trees that curved 40 yards or more on Augusta National’s 10th hole, the second of the playoffs, in the 2012 Masters?

“I had no idea where he was. . . .When (the ball) came out, it look like a curveball going to the right,” Louis Oosthuizen, the hard-luck loser, said. “An unbelievable shot. . . .”

The author of that instant classic backed up his claim that if he has a swing, he has a shot. “A perfect draw that set up perfectly,” he said of his gem of 160 yards from the trees. Then he deadpanned: “Pretty easy.”

Shots in the playoffs are hardly simple. Ask Raymond Floyd.

“Nick (Faldo) didn’t win it; I lost it,” Floyd told reporters in recounting his bid to win a second Green Jacket at age 47 in 1990. “I don’t mean that as a negative against Nick, but I made a series of stupid mental errors. On 17, I had a one-shot lead, and I was pumped. After a great drive I played too conservatively and three-putted for bogey. Bogey? I should have birdied that hole.

“And on No. 11 (the second playoff hole), I was in the fairway on a downslope; I hit it exactly like I wanted but didn’t account for the slope, which sent my ball left, into the creek. And that was that.”

That 10th green is where Hoch missed a 2- to 3-foot putt that would have ended his playoff with Faldo in the 1989 Masters. And the 10th is where Scott turned to caddie Steve Williams for advice on the winning putt that denied Angel Cabrera last year.

“I could hardly see the green in the darkness,” Scott recounted. “I was really struggling to read (the putt’s line), and I called Steve over.” Scott figured the break at one cup, but Williams said at least two cups. “It’s going to break more than you think,” the caddie said.

“He was my eyes on that putt,” Scott said.

That latest chapter of Sunday evening drama illustrates the magic of Augusta playoffs. Does anyone recall a shot from the Stewart Cink-Tom Watson playoff in the British Open? The Martin Kaymer-Bubba Watson duel in the PGA? Retief Goosen-Mark Brooks in the U.S. Open? Or how about the Masters’ playoffs before adopting the sudden-death format?

Compare those with Larry Mize’s chip from nowhere that inflicted perhaps the most painful setback among Greg Norman’s many near-misses in the 1987 Masters.

Oh, there have been some bummers. Len Mattiace fell apart on the first playoff hole and Mike Weir won in 2003. Kenny Perry stumbled into a playoff after bogeying the final two holes in regulation and Cabrera won with a par on the second extra hole in 2009.

Pressure? You bet. Just ask Raymond Floyd.

“Pressure is not just nervous swings; it affects your mental outlook, he said. “That (1990) tournament still hurts, because I always prided myself on mental toughness, and I lost because pressure got the better of me.”

Still, the opportunity to win the Masters is special.

“(Sudden-death) is a completely different game,” Oosthuizen said. “It’s match play, and you know you’re at least second. You go out and fire at pins and take on shots. . . . That was just a brilliant second shot (Watson) hit on 10.”

Shots like that make memories, and memories make the Masters, especially Masters playoffs.

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