In the 100-year history of the British Open, only 21 tournaments have been decided in a playoff. While the winner was decided over 36 holes at the beginning, the organizers shortened the playoff to 18 holes in 1970. The last rule change was in 1989, and since then a playoff has been played over four holes.
Decisions in playoffs – the 2000s
The last playoff took place in 2015, when Zach Johnson defeated his two competitors, South African Louis Oosthuizen and Australian Marc Leishman. Indeed, while Johnson needed a total of 15 strokes (3-3-5-4), Oosthuizen needed 16 (3-4-5-4) and Leishman 18 (5-4-5-4). The deciding factor was Johnson’s birdie on the second extra hole, while Leishman put himself out of the game on the first hole.
Before that, Stewart Cink beat Tom Watson in 2009 by 14 strokes (4-3-4-3), while Watson needed a total of 20 strokes (5-3-7-5) for the four extra holes. In the process, Watson, who was competing in the Open for the first time in 34 years, nearly won the tournament. With a victory, he would have become the oldest winner at the British Open at the age of 59. But his nerves must have let him down. He played a bogey on the 72nd hole, which earned him a playoff against Cink.
Two years earlier, in 2007, Padraig Harrington won with some luck against Sergio Garcia. Harrington had been trailing Garcia by six strokes at the start of the final round. He then took the lead, but played a double bogey on the last hole. Garcia, however, also muffed his putt for the win. In the playoff, Harrington narrowly edged Garcia (16 — 5-3-4-4) by 15 strokes (3-3-4-5).
In 2004, Ernie Els (16 — 4-4-4-4-) lost to Todd Hamilton (15 — 4-4-3-4) in a playoff. Both had previously missed their winning putt on the last hole.
Already two years before, in 2002, Ernie Els had gone into the playoff. Here, however, he prevailed against three other competitors. With 16 strokes (4-3-5-4), he was initially tied with Thomas Levet (4-3-5-4). While Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington lost out, the two played another extra hole in sudden-death mode. Els edged Levet by four strokes.
In 1999, three players went into a playoff for the title. Jean van de Velde actually held a comfortable lead of three strokes at the last hole. But a triple bogey forced him into a playoff against Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. After three extra holes Lawrie led by one stroke, another bogey on the fourth hole then made his victory perfect (5-4-3-3). It was the biggest comeback in PGA Tour history. At the start of the final day, Lawrie was still ten shots off the lead.
Marc O’Meara clearly beat Brian Watts (5-4-5-5) by two strokes the year before (4-4-5-4).
Costantino Rocca forced a play-off against John Daly with a spectacular putt in 1995. After he missed a chip on the last hole, he putted through the “Valley of Sin” on the Old Course. The ball rolled over the undulating green, conquered the slope up to the hole and actually fell into the hole. However, Rocca then played a seven (5-4-7-3) on the third playoff hole. This cleared the way for John Daly to win his second major (3-4-4-4).
In 1989, for the first time, only four holes were played in a playoff. Greg Norman erased his seven-stroke deficit with a 64 in the final round. Then he had to wait to see if anyone caught up with him. Mark Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady managed to do so. It was off to the playoff. Greg Norman missed the win on the last extra hole. He played his drive into a bunker, from there into another bunker. After putting his third shot out of bounds behind the green, he picked up the ball (3-3-4-x). Calcavecchia then eventually edged Grady (4-4-4-4 — 16) by three strokes (4-3-3 — 13).
The sixties and seventies
In the final 18-hole playoff, Tom Watson won over Jack Newton in 1975. Watson earned his first of five British Open victories with a 71.
In 1970, Doug Sanders was supposed to win the tournament. But on the last hole, his calf-biting putt missed the target. Jack Nicklaus led by one stroke on the last extra hole and claimed victory.
In 1963, the first left-hander won the British Open. Bob Charles won the final playoff, which was played over 36 holes (69/71) against Phil Rodgers (72/76).
The fifties and forties
Peter Thomson won the British Open for the fourth time in 1958. With a round of 68 and a 71, he edged out Dave Thomas (69/74). It was the fourth of his five British Open successes.
Bobby Locke won the play-off for himself with an emphatic victory in 1949 (67/68). Harry Bradshaw played a 74 and 73.
The thirties, twenties and tens
In 1933, Craig Wood (78/76) lost the first of four playoffs at his majors. Denny Shute defeated him with 75 and 74.
The amateur Roger Wethered didn’t really feel like playing the playoff in 1921. Actually, he was supposed to play in one of his team’s cricket matches. He was persuaded to play, but lost to Jock Hutchison (74/76). Wethered got a penalty, among other things, for stepping on his ball (77/82).
In 1911, the playoff ended after just 34 holes. Arnaud Massy gave up and so Harry Vardon could also break the playoff and won.
The 19th century
Harry Vardon prevented the third consecutive victory of J.H. Taylor (161) with his first win in 1896. He shot 157 to win the first of his six British Open titles.
In 1889, the tournament was held on the nine-hole Musselburgh Links. The play-off therefore went over 36 holes. Willie Park Jr. won by 158 strokes over Andrew Kirkaldy (163).
Bob Ferguson lost his fourth Open title to Willie Fernie in 1883 with a bogey on the par-3 hole.
The first playoff at the British Open took place in 1876. Although it could hardly be called a playoff. David Strath refused to play the playoff. Therefore, Bob Martin only had to walk once from the first hole to the last to be declared the winner.
David Strath refused to play because he disagreed with a decision made by the R&A on the 17th hole in the final round. In fact, the decided to postpone the final decision until after the playoff. If a decision was made against Strath, he would have had to be disqualified. Strath found that nonsensical and simply did not compete.