A Guide to Golf’s Majors

In men’s professional golf, where the field of players is composed of the best golfers in the world, any tournament victory is an outstanding achievement. But there are four events each year that are held up as the most prestigious: The Masters, The United States Open Championship, The Open Championship, and The PGA Championship. Together, these four tournaments are known as the Majors.

All of the Majors are comprised of four rounds of 18-hole stroke play from Thursday through Sunday (only players who score low enough on the first two days make the cut to play the weekend). Each Major has its own unique history and traditions, and if you’re going to make golf a part of your life, you need to know them. This guide will help you learn some of what makes each Major so important and special.

Most Major Championships of All Time

Jack Nicklaus – 18 Wins

Tiger Woods – 15 Wins

Walter Hagen – 11 Wins

(tie) Ben Hogan – 9 Wins

(tie) Gary Player – 9 Wins

The Masters Tournament

Always the first Major of the year, the Masters is held in the first full week of April. It’s the only Major to be held at the same golf course every year, the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

  • The first Masters Tournament was won by American Horton Smith in 1934.
  • Unlike the Open tournaments, for which amateur golfers can qualify, the Masters is an invitational tournament, which makes the field a smaller, more elite group of golfers.
  • Since 1949, when Sam Snead won, the Masters Champion has been awarded the Augusta National Golf Club’s membership coat, better known as the “Green Jacket.”
  • Each year, the previous Masters champion places the green jacket on the new champion.
  • In 1966, when Jack Nicklaus became the first repeat-Masters champ, he put the jacket on himself, seeing as how he was the previous winner. However, in the two times a golfer won the tournament in consecutive years since Nicklaus did it (Nick Faldo in 1990 and Tiger Woods in 2002), the chairman of Augusta National has stepped in to perform the ritual.
  • South African golf legend Gary Player became the first non-American to win the Masters in 1961. He won the tournament two more times in the 1970s.
  • Along with the green jacket and the prize money, the Masters champions are awarded a Gold Medal. They also have their names engraved in the Masters trophy, which stays in Augusta.
  • Each year, the lowest scoring amateur golfer in the Masters is awarded the Silver Cup.
  • Other prizes in the Masters include a crystal bowl for any player to make a hole-in-one or a double-eagle, a crystal vase for the lowest scorer of each tournament day, and a pair of crystal goblets for every eagle a player scores.

Amazingly True Story

In 1997, a then-21-year-old Tiger Woods made his professional breakthrough by winning his first Major Championship. He didn’t just win the Masters that year; he dominated. Tiger won the green jacket by a record twelve shots. He was the first non-white golfer to win at Augusta in the tournament’s then-63 years of existence.

The United States Open Championship

The second Major of the year is the United States Open Championship, more commonly known as the U.S. Open. The event is staged by the United States Golf Association, and is held each June on a pre-determined golf course within the United States.

  • The first U.S. Open was won by England’s Horace Rawlins in 1895. The tournament was half as long as it is today; only 36 holes were played in a single day.
  • The U.S. Open is notorious for its difficulty. Winners are usually at or near par after 72 holes, with some champions actually scoring over par. These higher scores can be attributed to the U.S. Open’s tradition of abnormally high grass in the rough, extremely hilly greens, tight fairways and long holes.
  • The U.S. Open is the only one of the four Majors where an additional round of 18 holes is played in the event of a tie.
  • Along with prize money, U.S. Open champions are awarded ten years of exemption to play in upcoming U.S. Opens. They’re also exempt for five years for the other three Majors.
  • In 2000, Tiger Woods set the tournament record for being furthest under par, when he was 12 strokes under par at the end of 72 holes. The runners-up ended at three over par, 15 strokes behind Woods. This is the record for the largest margin of victory in a Major.

Amazingly True Story

One of the biggest tragedies in golf history is the death of beloved American golfer, Payne Stewart. Playing in his infamous old-fashioned knickers, Stewart won his second U.S. Open Championship in 1999, and did so in cinematic fashion. He sunk a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke. Just four months later, Stewart died in a plane crash. His 1999 U.S. Open winning putt has since been immortalized as a defining moment in golf history.

The Open Championship

Also known as the British Open, the Open Championship is the oldest of the four Majors. It’s the only one of the Majors to be played outside of the United States. The Open is held in the United Kingdom each July.

  • The first Open Championship was won in 1860 by Willie Park Senior, a professional Scottish golfer. He won at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.
  • The Open Championship is organized and run by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the governing body of golf around the world (outside of the U.S. and Mexico).
  • The first trophy for the Open was the Champion’s Belt. Money prizes and the Claret Jug – the current Open Championship trophy – were introduced ten years into the Open’s history, in 1870.
  • Since 1949, the best finishing amateur in the Open has been awarded a silver medal.
  • Along with the Claret Jug (aka the Golf Champion Trophy), Open champions are awarded a gold medal.
  • The Open Championship is held annually at one of nine historic links courses in the United Kingdom. Every fifth year, the Open is hosted by the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, known as “The Home of Golf.”
  • In the event of a tie after 72 holes, the Open features a four-hole playoff between the leaders. If the tie is still not resolved, the tournament moves to a sudden death playoff until one golfer wins a hole.

The PGA Championship

The PGA Championship is the fourth and final Major of the year in men’s professional golf. Conducted by the PGA of America, the PGA Championship is held in the United States every August, usually four weeks after the Open Championship.

  • Beginning in 1916, the PGA Championship was originally a match-play formatted tournament. It wasn’t until 1958 that the event took on the stroke-play format it uses today.
  • The first stroke-play winner of the PGA Championship was Dow Finsterwald, who won at Llanerch Country Club in Pennsylvania.
  • PGA Champions are exempt for life from qualifying for future PGA Championships. They’re also invited to all of the other Majors for the five years after their PGA win.
  • Winners receive the Wanamaker Trophy, named after Rodman Wanamaker, one of the founding fathers of the PGA.
  • In 2009, South Korean Y.E. Yang became the first Asian-born golfer to win a Major when he won the PGA Championship.

What Makes the Majors Special

Despite their differences, the Majors have one thing in common: They are the highlights of each season in men’s professional golf.

They’re the most exciting tournaments to watch, they’re comprised of the most talented field of golfers, and they always provide some of golf’s most memorable moments. Winning one of them is the pinnacle of a golfer’s career. Winning more than one of them makes a golfer an instant hall-of-famer. Simply put, the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship are the most important events in golf every year, and golf fans around the world watch them to keep up with history.

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