What’s the Longest Playoff in the History of Golf?

I love watching golf on Sunday afternoons.  Especially if the leaderboard is tight and lots of players have a chance to win.  And I’m always rooting for a playoff.  It’s like I don’t want the party to end.  Do you feel the same way? 

If so, keep reading.  I researched the longest playoff in the history of golf and it’s quite a story.

1931 U.S. Open

There have been some long playoffs in recent years, but I had to go back almost a century to find the longest playoff in the history of golf. 

Up until a few years ago, if the U.S. Open was tied on Sunday after 72 holes, players returned for a playoff the following Monday.  If they were still tied after the 18-hole playoff (U.S. Open playoffs used to be 36 holes), the playoff continued in sudden death.  Remember the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines where Tiger beat Rocco Mediate in a 91-hole marathon on a broken leg?

As impressive and memorable as Tiger’s victory was in 2008, Billy Burke took 144 holes to defeat 1926 U.S. Amateur champion, George Von Elm in the 1931 U.S. Open at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio. 

After rounds of 75-69-73, Von Elm held the lead after the third round.  Burked teed off ahead of Von Elm in the final round and carded a 73 which appeared wouldn’t be good enough.  But Von Elm stumbled on the final nine of regulation, making bogeys on holes 12, 14, 15, and 16.  Standing on the 18th tee, he inexplicably found himself one shot back and needing a birdie to force a playoff.  He came in clutch and forced a playoff the following day.

The playoff remained tight for 36 holes the following day and Von Elm again found himself needing birdie on the last hole to tie Burke.  In a show of intestinal fortitude, he came through in the clutch.  Out of daylight, the players retired for the night. 

The next day, Von Elm held a one-shot lead after the morning 18 after posting 76 (U.S. Open playoffs were decided by 36-hole playoffs at the time).  But on the second nine of the afternoon 18, Burke turned up the heat and took the lead on the 32nd hole.  He extended his lead to two strokes on the 34th hole.  And despite a bogey on the 36th and final hole of the day, Burke eked out a one-shot victory over Von Elm.

Always a swashbuckling character, Burke was rumored to have smoked 32 cigars over the course of the 144-hole tournament.  In an interview after his win, he quipped that Von Elm probably lost 15 pounds over the course of the tournament while he gained three.

Final Thoughts

The very thought of playing 36 holes multiple days in a row makes my back spasm.  I couldn’t imagine playing 144 holes in a six-day period. 

Either I’m part of a softer golf population than existed in 1931, or these two players knew something I never learned. 

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments below.

Paul Liberatore

Paul Liberatore

Founder of Golfers Authority

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