Open offers everything but champ


CHASKA, Minn. -- And so The Big Tease has left us all frustrated once again.

The U.S. Open has this annoying habit. It serves up spell-binding drama, gets you all frothed up and anticipating a climactic finish, and then at the peak of arousal it makes this announcement:

"Attention, please. Everyone go home for tonight. Remember your places, we'll pick this up tomorrow."

This is the golfing version of stodginess interruptus. The U.S. Golf Association, hidebound, moss-covered and more than a little taken with itself, has proclaimed that the tournament it conducts to identify the single best player shall not be vulnerable to the one-hole fluke.

Therefore, it decrees that its playoffs, unlike any other in the sport, will be complete 18-holers.

The next day.

Never mind that there is no other sporting event of consequence that continues to operate in such a pace-destroying, rhythm-breaking, continuity-disrupting, tempo-shattering, interest-draining, plot-distorting, stiff-necked, high-handed manner.

There isn't a theater on Broadway that makes you come back for a matinee to find out how the play turns out.

The World Series has extra innings.

The Super Bowl has sudden death.

The Stanley Cup, too.

The NBA and NCAA have overtime.

The World Cup has a shoot-out.

Wimbledon has a tie-breaker.

Everywhere else in sport there is a provision for a resolution the same day. Or night.

No one else drags you back the next day.

Except the Open.

The world is wrong, they are right.

Every other golf tournament plays to an immediate decision.

Even The Masters, which can snob with the best of the pinched lips, jettisoned the next-day format and adopted sudden death.

Even the British Open, which is certainly more venerable than the U.S. Open, has a four-hole, same-day playoff format.

But here in the land of the Midnight Sun, where you can play by the light of the aurora borealis past 9 in the evening, the USGA stopped its 91st Open dead in its tracks at 4:48 p.m. yesterday when Scott Simpson and Payne Stewart completed their fourth round exactly as they had begun it -- locked at 6-under-par.

The finish had been exquisitely tense, each player trying to out-gag the other, Stewart missing three successive eminently makeable birdie putts on 15, 16 and 17, while Simpson was coughing up a two-shot lead over the final three holes with a pair of bogeys.

So four days and 72 holes left them at a stalemate.

Which could keep his leaking ship from going under first?

Go home and sleep on it, lads, if you can, and we'll give it a go today. From the first tee, of course.

So that portion of the national television audience that devoted most of its two precious weekend afternoons to the Open was told, in effect, to cut out of work early today (4 p.m., Ch. 13) or set the VCR.

And those loyal hordes who had trooped faithfully over Hazeltine National Golf Club in glorious sunshine yesterday were left with this comedown: Call in sick or find out who won after the fact.

Even the two participants said they would rather have reached a resolution there and then.

"For the sake of the fans," said Stewart, "it should end today. I feel it should be sudden death. The fans deserve the right to see a champion crowned today."

Simpson was less emphatic but concurred: "I kind of go with the flow, but my preference is something like the British Open."

It is everyone's preference. Everyone's save the USGA.

Its defense is that the championship is too important to be left to such whims of fickle fate as a one-hole winner-take-all. Yet by this logic, then if the 18-hole playoff ends in yet another deadlock, as was the case as recently as last year, then shouldn't the playoff continue for 18 more holes? And 18 after that. And keep at it even if it takes all the way till bloody Labor Day if you have to.

But no, if there is still a tie after 18 playoff holes, then the format becomes sudden death. The reasoning is flawed.

It's not as though this predicament has never presented itself before. This is the 91st Open and this will be the 30th playoff. That averages out to one every three years.

And a tie has become more common than rare. This is the second straight playoff, the third in the last four years, fourth in the last eight.

Pity you can't look forward to them.

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