To review: for years the 18-hole playoff was declared by the USGA as the only way to decide a tie and we all planned accordingly. Most times the U.S. Open playoffs have been decisive, but there have been some classics too.
The evolution of playoffs in other significant tournaments has helped us land on the three-hole aggregate playoff as eliminating the flukiness of a sudden death affair, while still seemingly capturing the depth of a longer duel between those who tied. The Players has added credibility since going to this format and producing satisfying moments, while The Masters sudden-death format looks dated** next to the PGA Championship (three holes) and Open Championship (four).
The USGA had this information at its disposal and regrettably chose a two-hole aggregate playoff for all of its Open's, even after moving to a three-hole format at the Senior and Women's Opens.
The explanation from USGA CEO Mike Davis, as noted in this Golfweek item from Kevin Casey:
“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,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s CEO and executive director. “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.”
And specific to two holes...
“Two holes will allow a player to recover from any single mistake, and at the same time, provide a memorable, and perhaps dramatic, experience for all involved,” Davis said.
It is hard not to conclude this was a decision driven by a desire to appease television, or worse, to anticipate what networks might want without an actual demand from the broadcast partner. Given that 18-hole Monday playoffs were kept in place because of the championship's importance, this declaration that the U.S. Open is using one less hole than the PGA or Players--and two holes fewer than The Open--subtly diminishes the stature of the U.S. Open. Given how satisfying the three-hole aggregate has been as an ideal solution between the vagaries of sudden death and the excess of returning on a Monday, this can only be chalked up to a decision in the best interests of an entity other than the U.S. Open.
If television is the culprit, I find it hard to believe Fox or any network would prefer to be blamed for compromising the integrity of America's national championship to get to some summer programming on a Sunday night. This feels more like the USGA Executive Committee anticipating the imaginary needs of a television partner overpaying to broadcast their championships.
And apparently, other than the social media team, the Executive Committee that sometimes a playoff captures the nation's imagination. So what's the hurry to end it so soon?
**Since we know the Five Families have been known to work together, I am wondering if the two-hole number was chosen because The Masters could conveniently go to such a format using the 10th and 18th holes, allowing the USGA to say--Augusta National offers two and so do we. The Masters would be better with a two hole playoff over sudden death, but even should former USGA President and new Chairman Fred Ridley institute such a change, this should not guide the U.S. Open's approach.