The U.S. Amateur stroke play playoff: survive and thrive
The 13-for-8 playoff at Riviera in 2017 is a pretty typical occurrence at the U.S. Am
The 13-for-8 playoff at Riviera in 2017 is a pretty typical occurrence at the U.S. Am

By David Tenneson

In 1979, the USGA changed the format for their oldest championship to be a mix of stroke play and match play. Since that time there have only been two occasions (1985 and 2000) where the stroke play stage of the event ended with a clean cutline of exactly 64 golfers to move on to match play. All other years there has been some kind of tie around that 64th position necessitating a playoff to bridge the two stages, and this year is no exception.

18 golfers played off for the final 3 match play spots on Wednesday morning. Cameron Sisk, who had a heroic comeback with a 66 just to get into the playoff after opening with 79, birdied the 10th hole at Bandon Dunes, as did Evan Katz. Three players were eliminated with bogeys, and the other 13 went to the 11th hole to play for the final match play spot. Aaron Du birdied the difficult par 4 to claim the 64th and final spot into match play.

Over the past 20 years, the average U.S. Amateur playoff has consisted of approximately 17 golfers competing for around 7 spots, which is not a quick process. Even when the playoff concludes after two holes – such as 2010 (16-for-6), 2013 (7-for-15), and 2017 (13-for-8), and this year – this process can still take hours for all of the golfers to finish. One of the longest and most dramatic playoffs in recent memory was last year’s 27-for-3 fight that took nearly four hours for Austin Squires to secure the 64th and final match play slot.

How have playoff survivors fared in the championship?

Once the field of 64 is finally set, the attention immediately turns to the first round of match play – the Round of 64. An interesting question is: does going through a (potentially marathon) playoff affect the chances of a player winning his match later that day?

Using the same dataset from 2000-2019, below are the Round of 64 results for playoff survivors as well as results for the same seeds in years they were not filled by playoff survivors.

Using these two tables, we’re able to get a sense of how playoff survivors tend to perform by comparing how successful a certain seed is when filled by a playoff survivor versus a player not subject to the playoff. Focusing on seeds 52-61 where there are more than a few instances of each to compare, we see that generally speaking the playoff survivors perform better than their counterparts in the Round of 64.

Perhaps this increased success is due to the fact the playoff survivors are already somewhat warmed up or already had the adrenaline pumping with the morning playoff, or maybe it is simply worse for the higher-seeded opponents who have had to wait for the playoff to conclude before getting to face their opponent. Regardless, there is a notable difference in the first-round results for playoff vs non-playoff players.

Next, we can look how each of the groups performed in the rest of the match play rounds.

What immediately jumps out when looking at these tables is the number of championships the playoff survivors have won. Not only have they won more championships, they have also had far more seeds with Finals appearances. Moreover, they have had more seeds make semifinal runs, quarterfinal runs, and final 16 runs.

This data further solidifies the notion that as a group, the players who make it through the playoff are able to capitalize on that success with deeper match play runs than similarly seeded players who didn't have to go through the playoff. As an aside, note that the only 64th seeded player to make it to the quarterfinals in the last 20 years was Squires who followed up the grueling playoff with a magical run before losing to 17-year-old Cohen Trolio, the youngest recorded semifinalist in the tournament’s history.

Notable U.S. Amateur playoff participants

A number of recognizable names have appeared in these playoffs over the years. Some notable players who were ultimately unsuccessful include Cole Hammer (2019), Curtis Luck (2014), C.T. Pan (2011), Wyndham Clark (2010), Buddy Marucci (2009), Jordan Spieth (2009), Byeong-Hun An (2008), Rickie Fowler (2007), and Gary Wolstenholme (2004). Two of these – Luck and An – would go on to win championships within two years of failing to advance in their respective playoff.

There have been a number of players during this span that have appeared in multiple playoffs, several of which have had notable amateur and/or professional careers. Fowler has gone on to become a household name and Scheffler has enjoyed recent success on the PGA Tour after an illustrious amateur career including winning the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur. Garrett Rank made waves in recent years with a bout of success including winning the 2019 Western Amateur, another distinguished mixed stroke play and match play tournament. Perhaps the most successful amateur on this list is also the only man to appear in the playoffs three or more times since 2000. Nathan Smith has enjoyed a distinguished amateur career that includes four U.S. Mid-Amateur victories (2003, 2009, 2010, and 2012), winning the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball championship with playing partner Todd White, and three consecutive Walker Cup appearances from 2009-2013.

There have been four instances since 2001 where playoff survivors have faced off against each other, a feat that can only occur in the Round of 16 or later.

Incredibly, the 2012 Finals match featured two players to make it through the 17-for-14 playoff. There were only two other occasions – 2005 (19-for-17) and 2003 (14-for-12) – where an all-playoff survivor match-up was nearly realized.

All eyes on...

Aaron Du, Evan Katz and Cameron Sisk.

The three survivors of the 18-for-3 playoff at Bandon Dunes, as would be expected, have difficult first-round matches. Du plays Wilson Furr, the medalist who shot a course-record 62 at Bandon Trails. Katz faces the #2 seed James Piot who shot 69-65 in qualifying, and Sisk plays the #3 seed Ben Shipp who shot 68-67.

But after beating the odds once already, all three players have to feel like they are "playing with house money", and as the data shows, they have a chance to keep the momentum going and perhaps start a deep match play run.

ABOUT THE U.S. Amateur

The U.S. Amateur, the oldest USGA championship, was first played in 1895 at Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island. The event, which has no age restriction, is open to those with a Handicap Index of 2.4 or lower. It is one of 14 national championships conducted annually by the USGA, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs. It is the pre-eminent amateur competition in the world. Applications are typically placed online in the spring at www.usga.org.

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