Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods lead the pack of major champions
Major championship victories aren't the sole gauge of a golfer's greatness, but they're a big one. Jack Nicklaus set the tone by building his year around peaking for the four majors. Tiger Woods followed suit. It's not surprising that the two greatest players of the modern era are also far and away the most prolific major champions, but it's a testament to the importance of these events and how much energy these two legends put into winning them. Here's the all-time ranking of major championship winners. (Note: This list reflects professional majors only, so for example, Bobby Jones' five U.S. Amateur and one British Amateur titles are not included here.)
1. Jack Nicklaus — 18 Major Wins
6 Masters (1963, '65, '66, '72, '75, '86)
5 PGA Championships (1963, '71, '73, '75, '80)
4 U.S. Opens (1962, '67, '72, '80)
3 British Opens (1966, '70, '78)
Nicklaus brought out greatness in his opponents — Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game through his physical skill and strength, his mental toughness, his sustained level of excellence, and his genius for strategically dismantling golf courses around the world. His 18 major championships are more than Hogan and Palmer combined. He posted a mind-boggling 37 top twos in majors. He finished in the top 5 in majors a record 56 times and in the top 10 a record 73 times. And lest we think the Tour of the 21st Century outshines the Tour in Jack's prime, consider this: Nicklaus fought many of the game's greatest at their very peak and beat them all. And when he didn't beat them, he coaxed their very best out of them. As if to prove the point, at 46, Nicklaus was able to muster enough of his old-time wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, Norman — all of them at the peak of their powers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986 in one of the greatest sports moments of all time.
2. Tiger Woods — 15 Major Wins
5 Masters (1997, 2001, '02, '05, '19)
4 PGA Championships (1999, 2000, '06, '07)
3 U.S. Opens (2000, '02, '08)
3 British Opens (2000, '05, '06)
Tiger's major wins have been equal parts dramatic and dominant. There was his breakthrough 12-shot Masters win in 1997 that announced his arrival to the pinnacle of the sport. There was his epic back-nine duel with Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship that culminated with his third major title of the year, one that followed his record-smashing 15-shot U.S. Open win earlier that season. There was his clutch 72nd-hole birdie putt to tie Rocco Mediate and his subsequent 18-hole playoff win on a broken leg at the 2008 U.S. Open. Then there was the most satisfying win of all — his 2019 Masters win, almost 11 years after that Open win and long after everyone had written him off due to his litany of injuries. Quite simply, at his best, Woods has played the game better than it's ever been played. And now that he's won the long-awaited 15th major, Jack's record of 18 is back in play. Don't ever count him out.
3. Walter Hagen — 11 Major Wins
5 PGA Championships (1921, '24, '25, '26, '27)
4 British Opens (1922, '24, '28, '29)
2 U.S. Opens (1914, '19)
The flamboyant Hagen was the first ultra-successful touring pro and raised the stature of the lowly pro golfer substantially in an era when amateurs like Bobby Jones ruled the sport. Hagen won 11 professional majors — two U.S. Opens, four British Opens, and five PGAs — to set a record that would stand until the 1960s, and he also won five Western Opens during a time when that tournament was essentially a major.
T-4. Ben Hogan — 9 Major Wins
4 U.S. Opens (1948, '50, '51, '53)
2 PGA Championships (1946, '48)
2 Masters (1951, '53)
1 British Open (1953)
Hogan is one of five players (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen) to win all of the Grand Slam events. In 1953, he became the first to win as many as three majors in one year, the Masters and both Opens. He didn't enter the PGA that year, fearing his legs weren't up to the challenge due to lingering effects of his 1949 near-fatal car crash. The '53 British Open at Carnoustie, the only British Open he entered, would be his last major victory.
T-4. Gary Player — 9 Major Wins
3 British Opens (1959, '68, '74)
3 Masters (1961, '74, '78)
2 PGA Championships (1962, '72)
1 U.S. Open (1965)
Using an unprecedented commitment to physical fitness (for golf, anyway) and an unmatched work ethic, Player has fashioned a remarkable career that has seen him win well over 150 tournaments worldwide, including nine major championships. He is one of only five players to own all four of golf's modern majors, and one of only four players — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Nick Faldo are the others — to have won the Masters and the British Open three times apiece.
6. Tom Watson — 8 Major Wins
5 British Opens (1975, '77, '80, '82, '83)
2 Masters (1977, '81)
1 U.S. Open (1982)
Watson won eight majors and dominated golf's oldest tournament, the British Open, like no one else, winning five times in a nine-year span and coming close to a historic sixth win in 2009 at 59. He won four memorable duels with Jack Nicklaus in major championships, including the 1977 British Open, the greatest head-to-head duel in golf history. His Augusta exploits are overshadowed by his dominance at the British Open, but between 1975 and 1988, no one was better at The Masters — two wins, three runner-ups, and 12 top-10 finishes. He outdueled Nicklaus at the 1982 U.S. Open on the strength of one of the greatest shots in golf history — his chip-in on the 71st hole that led to a two-shot win, perhaps the most satisfying of his 39 career wins.
T-7. Bobby Jones — 7 Major Wins
4 U.S. Opens (1923, '26, '29, '30)
3 British Opens (1926, '27, '30)
In the Golden Age of sports, nobody shone brighter than Bobby Jones. Not Babe Ruth, not Red Grange, not Jack Dempsey. Obviously, Jones' crowning achievement came in 1930 with his unprecedented and so far unduplicated Grand Slam. That year, Jones, bore the incredible weight of expectations. Fans and media fully expected him to sweep the majors, which at the time included the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs. He sweated out three one-up matches in the British Amateur. He won the British Open by two strokes, then took the U.S. Open by a similarly slim margin. Only one leg was left, and it was the easiest. Jones waltzed to the U.S. Amateur Championship amid a contingent of Marine bodyguards, and the Slam was his.
T-7. Gene Sarazen — 7 Major Wins
3 PGA Championships (1922, '23, '33)
2 U.S. Opens (1922, '32)
1 British Open (1932)
1 Masters (1935)
Sarazen won his first professional title at 19 and never looked back, winning 37 more times in a career that spanned more than four decades. He became the first member of golf's modern Career Grand Slam club with his legendary 1935 Masters win, which he added to his two U.S. Open titles (1922, 1932), his three PGA Championships (1922, 1923 and 1933), and his 1932 British Open win. After 66 years, only four other players — Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods — have joined that elite group. He even impacted the way the game is played. Sarazen is widely credited with the invention of the sand wedge in the early 1930s.
T-7. Sam Snead — 7 Major Wins
3 PGA Championships (1942, '49, '51)
3 Masters (1949, '52, '54)
1 British Open (1946)
If winning is the standard for determining excellence, there is no greater player in golf history than Sam Snead. Using a smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing, Slammin' Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player — a staggering total of 82 PGA Tour titles (since tied by Tiger). Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff triumph over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA Championships and a British Open. There is one hole in the Slammer's resume that prevents him from staking a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in history. Somehow, Snead never won the one tournament that seemingly should have been his by birthright. He never won a U.S. Open. But his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish his accomplishments.
T-7. Arnold Palmer — 7 Major Wins
4 Masters (1958, '60, '62, '64)
2 British Opens (1961, '62)
1 U.S. Open (1960)
From 1958 to 1968, Palmer reigned amid the azaleas and pines of Augusta National, where Arnie's Army first mustered. With the lone exception of 1963, he was in contention at every Masters during that epic stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once, and fourth twice. Although he made his reputation at The Masters — and made the tournament what it is today — it was the 1960 U.S. Open that truly captured the King at the peak of his powers. His historic final-round 65 erased a seven-stroke deficit for the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.
T-7. Harry Vardon — 7 Major Wins
6 British Opens (1896, '98, '99, 1903, '11, '14)
1 U.S. Open (1900)
Vardon's prowess as a player is virtually unknown to modern golf fans since he won all of his major titles prior to World War I. But you probably know his name: It adorns the trophy for lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour each season, and he gave the game its most popular method for gripping the golf club, the overlapping Vardon grip.
T-12. Nick Faldo — 6 Major Wins
3 British Opens (1987, '90, '92)
3 Masters (1989, '90, '96)
Sir Nick dominated world golf for a time at the expense of chief rival Greg Norman, whom he drubbed in a memorable British Open showdown in 1990 and beat in the 1996 Masters thanks to Norman's epic collapse. Faldo won six majors — three Masters and three British Opens — and earned 30 wins on the European Tour while providing a steadying influence on five Ryder Cup-winning teams.
T-12. Lee Trevino — 6 Major Wins
2 U.S. Opens (1968, '71)
2 British Opens (1971, '72)
2 PGA Championships (1974, '84)
The Merry Mex got a lot out of an unorthodox, self-taught game, winning 29 PGA Tour events and six majors. Four times, Trevino denied Nicklaus at a major championship, adding to his legend as one of the few players who could stare down the Golden Bear. Trevino also brought an unprecedented level of working-man appeal and humor to the Tour, although, as he said, "I played the tour in 1967 and told jokes and nobody laughed. Then I won the Open the next year, told the same jokes, and everybody laughed like hell."