Thirty years ago this month, the outcome of the Open Championship was for the first time resolved by a four-hole¬†playoff. The decision to forego the traditional 18-hole playoff the day after the championship was scheduled to end had been taken in 1986 but the Royal & Ancient Golf Club didn’t want to to conclude the competition with a sudden-death playoff, hence this kind of compromise format. In 1989 the final drama was played out in front of packed grandstands as three players – an American, Mark Calcavecchia, and two Australians, Wayne Grady and Greg Norman – fought for the title. It was to be an extraordinary climax.

The three men had finished tied with totals of 275, 13 under par, around Royal Troon. Norman had closed with a 64, Calcavecchia a 68 and Grady a 71. Norman, who had won the Open in 1986, was the only one with a major championship to his name. He began the playoff in confident mood, making a birdie from six feet. “I had no idea what kind of playoff it was,” said Calcavecchia later. “I asked my caddie and he said it was sudden-death. Then we found out it was four-hole aggregate.” If it had been sudden-death, it would have been Greg’s.

Norman birdied the second hole, too. So did Calcavecchia. The third was the 17th, a strong par-three. Norman’s tee shot was too good. “He over-pured it,” in the words of Calcavecchia. It went a little long and a chip and two putts later Norman had a bogey while Calc had a par. They were tied; Grady was two shots back and effectively out of it. On the final hole, a par-four, the American hit a decent drive. Norman hit a colossal one. Too colossal. It finished near the face of a bunker 325 yards away that he’d not been close to reaching in regulation play. With the honour, Calcavecchia came up with the goods. He hit a 5-iron to seven feet. Norman now needed a miracle. Instead he found another bunker and from there his third shot flew the green, ending up on a gravel path just in front of the clubhouse. That was out-of-bounds. Greg didn’t even get to complete the playoff. Calcavecchia didn’t need to make the birdie putt in order to win but he did it anyway.

Thus Norman had lost his third major in a playoff, following disappointments at the 1984 US Open and 1987 Masters, all under different formats. He would go on to lose the USPGA Championship in a playoff in 1993, thereby completing an unwanted non-Grand Slam, this a month after he had won the Open for a second time. Grady would win the USPGA the season after events at Troon, which was to be Calcavecchia’s only major.

For this year’s Open at Royal Portrush, the format has been adjusted to provide for a three-hole playoff in the event of there being no outright winner after 72 holes. Play would be over the 1st, 13th and 18th holes, sudden-death being deployed if the deadlock remained unbroken. Unlike at Troon, out-of-bounds over the back of the 18th will not enter the equation.

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