The longest playoff of all time came at the 1931 US Open, when Billy Burke needed 72 holes to defeat George Von Elm. The two were tied on 292 after 72 holes of regulation play. They tied in the first 36 hole playoff on July 5 with scores of 149, and had to return on the 6th for a further 36 holes, as there was no provision for sudden-death. Burke won on that day with 148 to Von Elm's 149 - a one shot victory (total 589 to 590) after 5 days and 144 holes of golf.
Billy Burke, leaning on his putter, watches George Von Elm's escape from sand during their epic 72 hole playoff for the 1931 US Open (Photo USGA)
The Major Championships, however, historically used longer playoff formats, although the US Open is now the only event that calls for an 18 hole format*. 36 hole playoffs were the norm for all the major championships in the early years, and sometimes had to be prolonged to 37 or even 38 holes, when sudden death was needed after a 36 hole tie.
The longest playoff in very recent golf history was Tiger Woods' 19th hole win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 US Open. The pair were tied on 283 after regulation play, and both shot 71 in the 18 hole playoff. Woods won on the 19th extra hole with a par to Mediate's bogey.
It took 20 holes to separate Se Ri Pak and Jenny Chuasiriporn in the 1998 US Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, Wisconsin. Pak birdied the second extra hole after the two tied on 290 in regulation play, and again on 72 in the 18 hole playoff.
20 holes were also needed in a three-way playoff for the 1994 US Open at Oakmont. Ernie Els, Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie tied on 279 after regulation play. Els and Roberts had 74s in the 18 hole playoff, eliminating Montgomerie who shot 78. Els won on the second sudden death hole with a par to Roberts' bogey.
The US Open playoff of 1990 went to 19 holes, when Hale Irwin and Mike Donald tied on 280 in regulation play, and again with 74s in the 18 hole playoff. Irwin then birdied the 19th to win. The event is famous for Irwin's 45 foot putt on the 72nd hole to get into the playoff, which prompted him to run all round the green slapping hands with spectators.
Here are all the Major Championship playoffs of 36 holes or more:
The Open Championship
• 1963: Bob Charles (140) def. Phil Rodgers (148) in 36 holes at Royal Lytham, England.
• 1958: Peter Thomson (139) def. Dave Thomas (143) in 36 holes at Royal Lytham, England.
• 1949: Bobby Locke (135) def. Harry Bradshaw (147) in 36 holes at Royal St. George's, Sandwich, England.
• 1933: Denny Shute (149) def. Craig Wood (154) in 36 holes at St. Andrews, Scotland.
• 1921: Jack Hutchison (150) def. Roger Wethered (159) in 36 holes at St. Andrews, Scotland.
• 1911: Harry Vardon won when Arnaud Massy conceded at the 35th hole at Royal St. George's, Sandwich, England.
• 1896: Harry Vardon (157) def. John Taylor (161) in 36 holes at Muirfield, Gullane, Scotland.
• 1889: Willie Park, Jr. (158) def. Andrew Kirkaldy (163) in 36 holes at Musselburgh, Musselburgh, Scotland.
• 1883: Willie Fernie (158) def. Bob Ferguson (159) in 36 holes at Musselburgh, Scotland.
• 1876: Bob Martin awarded title when Davie Strath refused to playoff at St. Andrews, Scotland.
Extract from the New York Times of July 6, 1931 describing the Burke - Von Elm marathon playoff
• 1946: Lloyd Mangrum (72+72, 144) def. Vic Ghezzi (72+73, 145) and Byron nelson (72+73, 145) in 36 holes at Canterbury GC, Ohio. 18 extra holes were required after all three tied in the first playoff.
• 1939: Byron Nelson (68+70,138) def. Craig Wood (68+73, 141) and Denny Shute (76) in 36 holes at Philadelphia CC, Pennsylvania. 18 extra holes were required after Nelson and Wood tied in the first playoff.
• 1931: Billy Burke (149+148, 297)
def. George Von Elm (149+149, 298) in 72 holes at Inverness GC, Ohio. 36 extra holes were required after they tied in the first playoff.
• 1929: Bobby Jones (141) def. Al Espinosa (164) in 36 holes at Winged Foot, New York.
• 1928: Johnny Farrell (143) def. Bobby Jones (144) in 36 holes at Olympia Fields, Illinois.
• 1925: Willie Macfarlane (75+72, 147) def. Bobby Jones (75+73, 148) in 36 holes at Worcester CC, Massachussets. 18 extra holes were required after they tied in the first playoff.
US PGA Championship
• 1941: Vic Ghezzi def. Byron Nelson by 1 hole after 38 holes at Cherry Hills, Denver.
• 1939: Henry Picard def. Byron Nelson by 1 hole after 37 holes at Pomonok CC, New York
• 1937: Denny Shute def. Harold McSpaden by 1 hole after 37 holes at Pittsburgh Field Club, Pennsylvania
• 1934: Paul Runyan def. Craig Wood by 1 hole after 38 holes, at Park Club of Buffalo, Williamsville, New York.
• 1923: Gene Sarazen def. Walter Hagen by 1 hole after 38 holes, at Pelham, Pelham Manor, New York
• 1935: Gene Sarazen (144) def. Craig Wood (149) in 36 holes at Augusta National. Sarazen owed his place in this playoff largely to his famous "shot heard around the world", when he holed out for an albatross (double-eagle) from 220 yards at the par 5 15th.
* Modern playoff formats in the other Majors:
• The Masters introduced sudden-death playoffs in 1976, the first taking place in 1979.
• The US PGA Championship introduced sudden-death in 1976, the first taking place in 1977.
• The Open Championship introduced a four-hole playoff in 1985, the first taking place in 1989.