Golf Playoffs: Finding a Winner, Right Now!
Seventy seven years ago, the Masters celebrated its first playoff in the history of the tournament, and it couldn’t have gone off better in terms of popularity. Gene Sarazen holed in from two hundred and thirty seven yards out for eagle with a 4 wood, and bested Craig Wood, who had been in the lead. Granted, they can be exciting, tense and great fodder for cliff-hanger entertainment. However, the playoff, as golf has structured it, is also a lurching change in aesthetics.
The term “sudden death playoff” is one of the most jolting moments in a game that was never meant to be built on jolts. After judging a group of players on a body of work, usually encompassing four days, the lyrical, thoughtful and contemplative side of the game is thrown out the window. One player inevitably pulls out a gun, or wand if you like, and shoots the other one dead, in one swing, one mishap or one moment of providential glory. It’s like moving from a Buddhist monastery to the gunfight at OK corral, all at once. If you think it’s traumatic for the viewer, be advised that Craig Wood went on to lose four more important playoffs. So shattered was he by the first one, he just couldn’t ever get the hang of it.
Sometimes, the format is to play one or two holes repeatedly, perhaps 18, 17-18 or 1, depending on the layout of the course. The four day regimen that failed to produce a clear winner was based on a myriad of challenges, but now it just comes down to one, and we’re going to play it and play it until somebody screws up, or somebody chips in. That’s how Chris Everett did it in tennis – keep hitting them perfectly from the base line until the opponent’s arms fall off.
Perhaps, in these days of hurry on to the next tournament, we don’t have time to waste on another body of work. We’re an action-packed society, and don’t have the leisure to wander through the museum admiring the great paintings. In a sense, sudden death makes for a bad script, like pasting the end of a Clint Eastwood gunfight on the end of a gauzy, slow French movie. It’s too quick, too soon, too sudden. Remember that the 1935 Masters was a 36 hole playoff. The club stuck to its guns to find out who could sustain the best body of work.
Then, of course, there’s the slow death playoff. It is supposed to be sudden death, but either both golfers are brilliant from every tee, equally lousy, or just get stuck in a rut playing 18 six times in a row. This is what befell poor Paula Creamer at the championship in Kingsmill over the weekend, and then some. It was nauseous, watching one player attempt to continue her perfectly grooved game, having shot every round in the 60s, and the other trying to recapture the beauty of her earlier rounds, knowing that she was at the disadvantage in doing so. Adding insult to injury, the playoff, a festival of par golf, was eventually called for darkness, and scheduled to continue the following morning.
So, not only was the body of work idea out the window, but now it was down to the best morning person. Apparently, Shiyai won that category, and Paula needed one more cup of coffee before heading to the first tee. She lost on the first hole, treated the whole thing with graciousness, and moved on to the next tournament. Who knows what her 9 or 18 hole score would have been?
If I want shock, I’ll watch hockey. Meanwhile, let me continue watching golf the way an art critic or therapist would. Let me see duels evolve over the holes, not like coup d’etats. Or, you could go out and do what Rory does – just step up and win the thing.