Like many other individual sports, professional golf is one in which it’s incredibly difficult to piece together complete and utter dominance.
When you play with a group, like in soccer, basketball, or baseball, it’s easier to develop consistency. The field of competitors is smaller, because you’re dealing with entire teams, and no one person is solely responsible for maintaining success. That’s not how it is in golf, outside group tournaments. There is just you, your club, the ball, a difficult 18-hole course, and a mega-crowded field of competitors.
This very nature lends itself to higher-variance outcomes. Golfers, like pro tennis players, are more subject to human error, and playing against dozens upon dozens of competitors every tournament further diminishes the chances you win not only once, but cobble together a string of victories. All you need to do is check out golf betting odds for every major event. You’ll notice that even the favorites are often still 10-to-1 underdogs and that the absolute favorite of each tournament only wins a small percentage of the time.
None of this is meant to discredit the difficulty of group sports. They are at the mercy of their own challenges, like one-and-done postseason formats or roster turnover. It can be harder building up chemistry when there are a bunch of new faces around you every year.
Still, in golf, the ability to collect more than just a stray tournament victory here and there is a big freaking deal. It is special and rare, and it’s why people were so impressed that Phil Mickelson won the 2021 PGA championship. It marked the fifth major victory of his career, a feat accomplished by only 15 others throughout the sport’s history.
In honor of this exclusivity, we’ve taken the exercise a step further to bring you a list of the five golfers who have the most major tournament wins of all time.
“Jack Nicklaus” by PGA Tour is licensed under CC BY 3.0
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)
Only one other golfer comes close to touching Jack Nicklaus’ list of accolades, and we’ll get to him in a second. Everyone else is light years behind.
Nicklaus’ dominance is unlike anything the sport has ever seen. His 37 top-two finishes and 56 top-five placements are also a record. His crowning achievement, however, is that sixth Masters victory. He was 46 years old, considered past his prime, and ended up beating a handful of star golfers all in their heyday.
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)
Long considered a formality to catch Nicklaus on the major-victory list, Tiger Woods’ climb up the ladder has officially come into question.
That doesn’t make his resume any less impressive. His five masters wins are mind-melting. That he won in 2019, more than a decade after his previous victory, remains his sweetest first-place finish of all time. Back injuries sapped him of availability and skill. The 2019 Masters marked his return to form.
And yet, at 45 years old, Woods’ career is back in question following a devastating car accident. He suffered major fractures in his leg, and it’s not clear when or if he’ll rejoin the tour. Should he ever get back on the green, Nicklaus’ record is absolutely in play—but only if Tiger is, well, still Tiger.
“Walter Hagen” by golf.com is licensed under CC BY 3.0
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)
Though Walter Hagen has long since left the sport (he died in 1969), his legacy lives on.
Looking back, he was the first real golf superstar. His run during the 1920s remains one of the most dominant stretches to this day, and he held the record for most majors won until the 1960s.
Really, his place at No. 3 says it all. It’s been more than 90 years since his last victory, and he still ranks third.
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)
Ben Hogan’s place in history is more than his majors wins themselves. Sure, nine victories is outstanding. No modern-day golfer is within real range of that mark. (Mickelson leads the way there with six majors.)
But Hogan is also known for the context in which he scooped up victories. Most notably, in 1953, he became the first golfer to ever win three majors in the same calendar year.
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)
Our list ends with Gary Player, who like everyone coming before him, rounds out the catalogue of golfers to win all of the sport’s four grand slam majors.
Beyond that raw total, he is most known for his willingness to try and qualify for as many tournaments as possible during his prime. He appeared in more than 150 tournaments during his salad days, and he joins Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the only golfers to win the British Open more than two times.