Golf tournaments are an odd animal. Depending on the tour, events are typically 36, 54 or 72 holes of stroke play (medal play, if you’re old) to determine a champion with the lowest aggregate score. However, in the event of a tie, the players sharing top billing on the leaderboard don’t just shake hands and split the trophy King Solomon style. They have a playoff.
The format may change — sudden death, an aggregate score over a few holes or another full 18-hole round — but settling the winner means an extra-tournament affair.
When there are two players tied at the end of a regulation tournament, figuring out who finishes where is pretty simple. The person who wins the playoff gets first place, and the loser gets second place. But what about when more than two players are tied for first place? Under modern golf convention, the winner finishes first and the losers all finish tied for second place — the ole P-2, if you will. But why?
Take, for example, the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open three-man playoff with winner Jason Day, Alex Noren and Ryan Palmer. Palmer was eliminated on the first playoff hole when he didn’t match the birdies made by Day and Noren. However, he still finished tied for second with Noren despite not playing the five other playoff holes needed to identify Day as champion. Palmer didn’t have to get up early on Monday morning to settle the thing; he had his T-2 check in hand by the time he went to bed on Sunday night.
There’s an argument, then, that Palmer should be given third-place money, while Noren gets second and Day gets the first-place check. The thought is that the order of elimination from a playoff should matter. So, if Palmer and Noren were eliminated on the same hole, they’d both finished T-2. If there were four guys and two bowed out on the first playoff hole, they’re T-3. You get the idea.
However, golf doesn’t treat playoff competitors that way. According to USGA rules expert and official Missy Jones, playoff competitors are technically all tied for second place before the playoff starts.
All 3 are T-2 when they start playoff. One guy moves up to win but other two still earned their position in second place during competition. https://t.co/s5ibYN9zru
— Missy Jones (@missyjonjones) January 29, 2018
The playoff determines the winner, while the others get credit for tying for the lead in the regulation portion of the event by finishing tied for second place. That makes a whole lot of sense. After all, we don’t have a playoff for every position in a golf tournament, as it would take forever. So why let extra holes to determine a champion also determine individual places in the tournament that was already settled?
The only guidance the USGA gives in the Rules of Golf is under Rule 33-6, which states that a tournament committee must identify ahead of the tournament what the rules for breaking ties are. They offer suggested methods, particularly if a playoff isn’t possible. However, in the event a playoff is possible, there’s only one rule: “A halved match must not be decided by stroke play. A tie in stroke play must not be decided by a match.”
In fact, the USGA used to decide places in their US Open playoffs. In the 1950 US Open, won by Ben Hogan in a Monday playoff, Lloyd Mangrum was awarded second-place prize money by finishing four shots behind Hogan’s playoff 69 at Merion, while George Fazio earned a third-place check for finishing with 75 in the extra round. Obviously, that changed at some point. In 1963, the next US Open playoff with more than two players, Julius Boros won over Jacky Cupit (73) and Arnold Palmer (76). Cupit and Palmer finished tied for second. That approach doesn’t appear to be written into the Rules of Golf at all, meaning it is up to the tournament committee or presenting organization to determine how playoffs are handled.
In the PGA Tour player handbook, however, the Tour’s view on playoffs is spelled out clearly. If more than one player loses in a playoff of any kind, they’re deemed to finish tied for second place, no matter how long they lasted in the playoff or their score.