Stories You Should Know: The Golf Majors

The Golf Majors:

How did the four tournaments that make up “The Majors” earn that status, here we will give you a brief history of the most important tournaments in men’s professional golf.

In the early years of the 20th Century the British Amateur and U.S. Amateur were considered Majors, but that is no longer the case. The four Professional Golf Majors are The Masters, U.S. Open, The (British) Open Championship, and the PGA Championship. When did they start? Where were they played? What made them majors? We’ll cover a brief history of each major, and then rate their significance.

The Open Championship (British Open) 

The Claret Jug

The Open Championship (British Open) was first played in 1860 at Prestwick in Scotland. The tournament was for professionals the first year and won by Willie Park by two over Old Tom Morris in a 36-hole event. Amateurs were admitted the second year when Old Tom won his first title. Morris and Park would dominate the first eight tournaments, with Old Tom Morris winning four and Park winning three.

Old Tom Morris
Old Tom Morris 

Young Tom Morris then took over winning the next 4 in a five year span. The tournament wasn’t played in 1871 because Young Tom had retired the Challenge Belt, which was the award earned, with his third straight win in 1870. With nothing to play for, a medal was introduced in 1872 when Young Tom won his fourth and final championship. The next year, for the first time, the tournament was held at the Old Course at St. Andrews. The Claret Jug also made its first appearance in the 1873 champion (Tom Kidd).

Young Tom Morris
Young Tom Morris 

Muirfield was added to the course rotation in 1892, when the championship for the first time was extended to 72 holes. Two years later the tournament was held for the first time outside Scotland at Royal St. Georges. With the rise of Harry Vardon and James Baird in the late 1890s the tournament became a true major championship. Players from Great Britain won all the championships until 1909 when Frenchman Arnaud Massy triumphed. The first American (Jock Hutchison) captured the title in 1921. With the rise of American greats Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen Americans won 12 of the next 13 Claret Jugs.The Open Championship at this time was clearly the premier event of the year.

Harry Vardon
Harry Vardon

However, due to low prize money, the coming of World War II and a time conflict with the PGA Championship the top American players quit coming over in the late 30s. Byron Nelson (5th in 1937) and Ben Hogan (1st in 1953) only came over once, Sam Snead participated twice 16 years apart (1st in 1946, 6th in 1962). The tournament had clearly the weakest field of the four majors until 1960, when Arnold Palmer brought it back to prominence.

Arnold Palmer British Open
Arnold Palmer brought the top US Players back to the Open in the 1960s.

Arnie won both the Masters and U. S. Open and decided to play the Open Championship at St. Andrews going for the third leg of the Grand Slam. He lost by one stroke to Kel Nagle, but returned to win in 1961 and 1962. This led to a flood of American competitors, led by Jack Nicklaus, that returned The Open Championship to it’s previous stature.

United States Open Championship:

Horace Rawlins
Horace Rawlins won the first U.S. Open in 1895. 

The first U. S. Open was played on 9-hole course, Newport Country Club in Newport, Rhodes Island in 1895. Englishman Horace Rawlins won the 36-hole tournament that was played all in one day and involved ten Professional and one Amateur. British subjects won the first 16 championships. They were able to win the American’s premier event without bringing over their strongest players. Before 1913 the two greatest British Champions (Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor) had only competed one time, finishing 1st and 2nd in 1900. John McDermott was the first American to capture his home title in 1911, and when he was able to defend his title in 1912, the British were motivated to send their best to compete the following year.

1913 would be the turning point for the U.S. Open. Brits Harry Vardon, Ted Ray, and J.H. Taylor all made the journey to Brookline, Massachusetts to reaffirm the British dominance in golf. In what may have big the most significant tournament ever, 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet stunned the golf world by ending the 72-hole tournament tied with Vardon and Ray and then defeating them in an 18-hole playoff the next day.

Francis Omeit
American amateur Francis Ouimet won the most significant US Open in 1913.

The U.S. Open stature increased immediately, with Walter Hagen winning two of the next four titles, followed by Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen winning in the early 1920s. The Tournament shared with The Open Championship as the premier tournament in the world until the 1930s when it surpassed the Open when the best American Players quit participating in the Open Championship.

PGA Championship:


The PGA was started as a match play event in 1916. In February 1916 the Professional Golfing Association of America was established in New York. The PGA Championship was won by Englishman Jim Barnes the first two times it was played, in 1916 and 1919. Despite the impressive list of winners in the early years (Walter Hagen won five times, Gene Sarazen won three), the tournament struggled due to the quality of the courses used and the absence of the best foreign players and the best amateurs (Bobby Jones) not being eligible.

Walter Hagen PGA.png
Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship 5 times. 

In 1957 the tournament was losing money, and under pressure from the TV networks, the PGA of America chose to change to a 72-hole stroke play tournament. Despite having the strongest field most years of all the Majors, the PGA is clearly the least prestigious of the four. It’s played on the weakest courses and has the most unheralded list of winners.

The Masters:

The Masters

The last of the four to be created was the brainchild of Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts. Augusta National Golf Club was designed out of a plant nursery in eastern Georgia. They hired noted course designer Alister MacKenzie to build the course. Bobby Jones named the tournament “The Augusta National Invitational” over the objections of Cliff Roberts, who coined the name “The Masters”.

Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts
Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts were the people behind the creation of Augusta National Golf Club and the tournament The Masters. 

Fortunately for the tournament Gene Sarazen won the second installment after hitting the most famous shot in golf (Double Eagle on the 15th hole in the final round, read all about that here.). Having a player the caliber of Sarazen win the second go around gave the tournament immediate stature. Roberts finally convinced Jones to accept “The Masters” as the name in 1939. A very special tournament from the beginning, the Masters took off after the war with the ascension of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, then gained truly major status with the coming of Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player. It is now the most watched tournament of the year.

Rating the Majors:

  1. The Open Championship at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. The oldest tournament at the birthplace of golf, enough said.
  2. The U.S. Open at the greatest American Courses; Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Merion, or Shinnicock Hills. The toughest condition on the best courses.
  3. The Open Championship at Muirfield. Some say it is a better course than St. Andrews. Built in the 1890s, this course in the past has been rated the #1 layout in the world. It is still in the top ten.
  4. The Masters; Played on the same great course every year. Back nine led to many thrilling finishes. On the down side, it has the weakest field of all the majors; also their decision to go to a sudden death playoff format really diminishes the entire exercise. CBS Television should not have that much influence.
  5. The U.S. Open at next level American Courses; Wing Foot, Olympic Club, Pinehurst, Etc. You get the idea, the toughest conditions at top venues.
  6. The Open Championships at the other links in the rotation. Royal St. Georges, Turnberry, Troon, Birkdale, Carnoustie, Hoylake, Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s. Not up to the championships at St. Andrews or Muirfield, but the Claret Jug is probably the most prized possession in golf.
  7. The U.S. Open at not so classic venues; Chambers Bay, Erin Hills, Torrey Pines, Olympia Fields. You get the idea, good courses, but not quite up to the others listed.
  8. Any PGA Championship; one of the four has to be last. The courses they choose  are hit and miss. Despite the strong field tends to have the least accomplished winners. This is not a criticism, The PGA is still a major, and only three other tournaments can top it.


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