Question: Why wasn't it surprising when Tiger Woods lost a playoff to Billy Mayfair at the Nissan Open? Answer: Because the playoff is golf's version of Russian roulette, a funky, fickle, unpredictable competition that eventually gets the best of everyone. Arnold Palmer lost a playoff to Howie Johnson. Ben Hogan lost one to Leonard Dodson. Gary Player versus Don Whitt? Whitt won, of course.
Hardly anyone escapes the playoff blues. Of the 248 PGA Tour players who have participated in at least two playoffs, only 76 have winning records. (The chart below shows the records of the 10 Tour players with the most playoff experience.) In fact the 28 leading tournament winners of all time, with 999 victories among them, are 135-149-2 for a winning percentage of just .472 in playoffs. (That 2 is no typo. After 11 holes of sudden death at the 1949 Motor City Open, Lloyd Mangrum and Cary Middlecoff were declared co-champs.)
Some stars are stellar in playoffs. Walter Hagen was 5-1, Curtis Strange is 6-3, Tom Watson 9-4. Some save their best, or worst, for the majors. Nick Faldo lost an 18-hole playoff at the 1988 U.S. Open, but he won back-to-back green jackets in sudden death at the 1989 and '90 Masters. Jack Nicklaus, a mere 11-9 in overtime in regular tournaments, was a Bear in the Grand Slam events. He won three of his four major playoffs, losing only to Lee Trevino—and Lee's rubber snake—at the '71 U.S. Open.
At the other extreme is Palmer, who is also 14-10 in OT but only 1-3 when it counts most. From 1962 through '66 Arnie lost three U.S. Open playoffs. Ben Crenshaw's 0-8 playoff record is even worse, but since only one of his defeats came in a major, the most painful playoff record of all may belong to Greg Norman and Crag Wood. They're the only players to pull off the career Reverse Grand Slam by losing playoffs in all four majors. Upon completing his anti-Slam at the '93 PGA, where he lipped out putts on both playoff holes to fall to Paul Azinger, Norman said with chagrin, "At least I've been in there."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]