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Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Playoffs in Golf Major History

Ben AlberstadtFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Playoffs in Golf Major History

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    The playoff in golf is, by its very nature, an exciting prospect: Two (or sometimes more) men go head to head over a few holes—or a full 18—to determine a tournament's victor. When such a spectacle takes place on the stage of a major championship, the intensity, intrigue and excitement of the competition ascend to an even higher realm of sport.

    While this list is undoubtedly biased toward the television age and sudden-death playoffs, I hope it captures some of better moments in the history of this great game. Feel free to add to/disagree with the list, just be sure to get the putt to the hole (unlike Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship). 

    With Adam Scott's playoff triumph fresh in our minds, on to the list!

Honorable Mention: 2009 Open Championship

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    Stewart Cink: 4-3-4-3

    Tom Watson: 5-3-7-5

    OK, the playoff itself wasn't that exciting; Stewart Cink beat Tom Watson by six strokes over the four holes of their duel. However, the buzz that permeated the 59-year-old Watson's back nine at Turnberry nearly nudges it into this list.

    Watson, who won the Open Championship in a playoff in 1975, was unable to get up and down from behind the green on his final hole of the competition. A bogey, after an agonizing missed putt, landed the veteran in a playoff with Stewart Cink, which the older man never really looked like he could win.

    For Watson, it was very much like Cinderella at the ball on the back nine. The clock struck midnight as he approached the green at the last hole—appropriately named Duel in the Sun after Watson's epic 1977 battle with Jack Nicklaus at the course. He was very much a near-60-year-old-man, unsteady with the putter as he stroked his weak effort for par at the 72nd hole.

    Before that, though, Watson turned back the years, awakening the ghosts of his victory some 30 years before, in one of the most exciting final rounds at a major in recent memory. 

10. 2013 Masters

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    Adam Scott: 4-3

    Angel Cabrera: 4-4

    The first playoff on the list is also the most recent: Adam Scott's triumph over Angel Cabrera at this year's Masters Tournament.

    The Australian birdied his final hole of the competition, seemingly clinching victory. However, when Angel Cabrera calmly hit his approach shot tight and made the putt on that same hole shortly thereafter, a playoff became necessary to determine the winner.

    The excitement of Adam Scott's putt on the 72nd hole was only exceeded by his tournament-clinching 12-footer on the second playoff hole as darkness settled over Augusta.

9. 2012 Masters

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    Bubba Watson: 4-4

    Louis Oosthuizen: 4-5

    There are few more exciting shots from major championship playoffs than Bubba Watson's approach from the trees along the right side of the 10th (second playoff) hole at the Masters in 2012. Oosthuizen, on the other hand, took the choke en route to bogeying the hole.

    When Watson two-putted for par after his miraculous recovery shot, an instant classic was imprinted on our collective golfing conscience and our computer and television screens. 

8. 1955 U.S. Open

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    Ben Hogan: 69

    Jack Fleck: 72

    Jack Fleck's 1955 U.S. Open victory at the Olympic Club stands as one of the greatest upsets in golf history. Fleck, a club pro from a municipal course in Iowa, birdied the final four holes Sunday to force a playoff with the legendary Hogan, who was in pursuit of his fifth U.S. Open title.

    The magic continued for Fleck during the 18-hole playoff the next day. Hogan, 42 at the time, stepped onto the tee at the final hole trailing Fleck by a stroke. The Hawk slipped while striking his tee shot and made a double bogey on the hole. Fleck, for his part, parred the hole to conclude one of the most unexpected and near-surreal playoffs in major championship history.

7. 1991 U.S. Open

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    Payne Stewart: 75

    Scott Simpson: 77

    The late Payne Stewart's U.S. Open victory at Hazeltine came after a back-and-forth 18-hole playoff with Scott Simpson. The plus-four aficionado tightened the noose on his competitor over the final few holes to win by two strokes.

    Stewart's second major victory didn't come as dramatically as his first, but it was an excellent competitive exhibition and a thrilling display of Stewart's match-play prowess. 

6. 1923 U.S. Open

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    Bobby Jones: 76

    Bobby Cruickshank: 78

    The greatest amateur of them all, Bobby Jones, won his first major at the 1923 U.S. Open in a playoff over another Bobby, Bobby Cruickshank. Jones entered the playoff on the heels of an unimpressive final-round 76 after holding the 54-hole lead. The contest between Jones and Cruickshank was a series of punches and counterpunches; through the first 17 holes, only three holes were halved by the pair. 

    The players arrived at the 18th hole all square. From the rough, Jones hit a miraculous two-iron to within 10 feet. Two putts later, the Georgian, barely 20, captured his first U.S. Open.  

5. 1950 U.S. Open

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    Ben Hogan: 69

    Lloyd Mangrum: 73

    George Fazio: 75

    It's hard to think of a more compelling and significant playoff victory in the history of golf than Ben Hogan's triumph at Merion in 1950, save for Ouimet's 1913 U.S. Open win. However, the playoff itself wasn't profoundly exciting. The most dramatic happening during the match was Lloyd Mangrum illegally removing a bug from his ball, earning him a two-stroke penalty, which allowed Hogan to cruise to victory a mere 16 months after a near-fatal car accident. 

    The iconic photo of Hogan hitting a one-iron into the 72nd hole merely set up a two-putt to get him into the playoff. Had he played the same shot to set up a winning putt during the playoff, Hogan's 1950 victory would be nearer to the top of this list. 

4. 1987 Masters

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    Larry Mize: 4-3

    Greg Norman: 4-4

    Seve Ballesteros: 5

    An often overlooked element of the Norman-Mize playoff is the fact that it involved Seve Ballesteros, whose bogey on the first playoff hole ended his pursuit of the green jacket. Norman appeared to be in the the superior position after the golfers played their approaches to the second playoff hole.

    Larry Mize, however, from 140 feet away from the hole, played an incredible chip, which, as if drawn by a magnet, found its way into the hole, sinking Greg Norman's hopes in unbelievable and exciting fashion. 

3. 2008 U.S. Open

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    Tiger Woods: 71

    Rocco Mediate: 71

    As much as any other win, Tiger's 2008 U.S. Open victory defines Woods the competitor. On a mangled leg, several times against the ropes, he fought backfirst with a birdie putt at the 72nd hole to force an18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate and then again on the final playoff hole to force extra holes.

    With a par to Mediate's bogey on the first extra hole, Tiger Woods achieved a thrilling victory that seemed both impossible and inevitable at the same time. It was an incredible moment in the the history of the sport: Tiger's ability to win was at an all-time high, while his body (two stress fractures in his leg, damaged ACL) was at its most compromised. 

2. 2000 PGA Championship

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    Tiger Woods: 3-4-5

    Bob May: 4-4-5

    The playoff between Bob May and Tiger Woods at the 2000 PGA Championship is so good that you should devote 4:39 of your life to watching this recap. In fact, it's so good that even the profoundly cheesy music in the video gets a pass.

    May and Woods dueled at Valhalla (appropriate, as that's the hall of the gods in Norse mythology). Tiger needed birdies at the 17th and 18th holes during the final round just to force a playoff with the journeyman May, whom he bettered by a stroke during the three-hole playoff. 

1. 1913 U.S. Open

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    Francis Ouimet: 72

    Harry Vardon: 77

    Ted Ray: 78

    Remember when Tianlang Guan made the cut at the Masters? Think about the significance of that event multiplied by a thousand. Heck, think about Guan winning the Masters, and you haven't come close to the significance, with respect to the history of golf, of Francis Ouimet's victory at the 1913 U.S. Open.

    Not only was Ouimet's victory an incredible performance in and of itself—he dominated Vardon and Ray in an eighteen-hole playoff—but his win is one of the great sports stories of all time. As the young caddie from Brookline, Mass. was carried away from the Country Club by adoring fans after his win, so too were Americans carried away by the game of golf. 

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