One of the striking things about 2016 was that, despite the predicted dominance of the so-called ‘Big Three’ – Messrs Spieth, McIlroy and Day – beforehand, not one of them was able to come up trumps in the majors, and we ended up with four first-time champions during the calendar year.
It was just the fifth time in history that golf has seen a Grand Slam of first-timers, with the first of these Black Swan events occurring in 1959 when Art Wall Jr, Billy Casper, Gary Player and the lesser-hailed Bob Rosburg all tasted glory in the four respective majors.
You like that stat?
Well, the good news is that we’ve got plenty more, because our fascination with the majors, trends thereof, and the wider issues relating to them, prompted us to call upon our statisticians to go deep into the annals of Grand Slam history, and they didn’t disappoint…
History of Majors
There has been a collective total of 439 occurrences of the current quartet of majors, but it’s important to note that the Masters and the PGA Championship weren’t considered as majors until fairly recently. Instead, The British Amateur and the US Amateur took their place alongside the Open and the US Open as the world’s most prestigious golf tournaments in the early days.
No one has managed to win all four of the current majors in the same year during the modern era, but Bobby Jones managed it in 1930 when he won the full house of the previous collective. However, as the Masters soared in popularity, and as many of the world’s best players began to turn pro, the original structure slowly gave way to the foursome we now refer to as the majors.
The lines are blurred as to when this actually became official. Ben Hogan famously won the Masters, the US Open, and the Open Championship in 1953, but was unable to compete in the PGA Championship as it took place during the same week as the Open that year – a bit of a scheduling farce, really.
But by the time Arnold Palmer made clear his intention to win a ‘Grand Slam of his own’ at the 1960 Open Championship, having already won the Masters and US Open that year, most people generally considered the present ensemble to encompass the year’s four majors.
Caveats and Disclaimers
It’s important to have a good grasp of basic major history before making any sweeping analysis of the stats we have below. There are probably two other key historical points to note as well. The first is that, until Palmer ushered in an era of greater American enthusiasm for the Open Championship in the 1960s, very few Americans were willing to make the transatlantic journey to the United Kingdom to compete.
Conversely, the PGA Championship was almost exclusively contested between Americans until it became a strokeplay event in 1958, and when it eventually attracted greater prestige. Such factors inevitably skew the data when it comes to the country of origin of major champions, and should be factored in to any musings.
But, these caveats notwithstanding, there is still plenty of scope to make meaningful deductions about trends, comparisons and anomalies when it comes to major championship data, and with your history lesson now complete, it’s time to get to the good stuff. So boil the kettle, grab a cookie, and prepare to tuck into our feast of statistical fun!
Winners by Country
Well, let’s not make any bones about it: the Americans have been utterly dominant since the first ball was unwittingly teed up at a major in the Open Championship at Prestwick Golf Club back in 1860. Not bad when you consider that no American even took part in the eight-man field that year – or any other for a number of years thereafter!
Scotland retains a good grip on second place in the overall standings, but that is largely down to their annexation of the Open Championship in the early years. In fact, the home of William Wallace, deep-fried Mars Bars and bagpipes came out on top in all of the first 29 stagings of the world’s oldest major, with 41 Opens in total among them to date. 13 wins at the US Open reads well too, while Sandy Lyle established himself as one of the world’s elite when he triumphed at Augusta in 1988.
But the major trophy cabinet has been pretty bare for the Scots since Lyle’s Masters victory, with just the solitary triumph forthcoming thereafter. It’s seen their ‘friendly’ neighbors south of the border close the gap with seven major wins over that period, while the Southern Hemisphere duo of South Africa and Australia have made their presence felt with a total of 39 majors between them – 15 of which have come since 1988, and with the two nations clearly favoring links golf having taken 19 Claret Jugs home with them south of the Equator. Sixth in the list is Jersey, although they largely have Harry Vardon and his seven majors to thank for that.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list is the dearth of Asian major winners, given the exponential growth of the game in the Far East, and the dominance of Asian golfers within the women’s game. In fact, that contingent boasts 31 major titles between them – all of which have come since Se Ri Pak’s maiden win in 1998 – while their male counterparts have amassed just one in total, with YE Yang holding off Tiger Woods in the most unlikely circumstances to win the PGA in 2009.
Will an Asian surge be the next significant trend to emerge in the men’s game? Hideki Matsuyama is a world-class player, who looks to have a few majors in him. But there aren’t many others from the Orient who seem to be banging the door down. That, of course, can all change in quick time though, as the ladies have shown.
Digesting the USA's Dominance
Ultimately a score of 264 to 175 in the USA’s favor is still a remarkable statistic, especially when you consider that they gave the rest of the world a 66-tournament and 51-year headstart before winning one.
He may not have known it at the time, but a 19-year old John McDermott from Pennsylvania would etch his name into history by becoming what we now acknowledge to be the first major champion to hail from the United States, when we won his national Open in 1911 (albeit that players from the US had previously won The Amateur Championship and US Amateur by that stage).
Since then, the American flag has soared high above the rest, as they’ve ruthlessly bagged an impressive 264 major trophies in the space of 363 events. It makes for a success rate of 73 per cent. Or, put more crudely, it means they’ve won roughly three out of four majors each year since 1911.
And yes, we can all hear the argument loud and clear: “Duh, three of the four majors take place on American soil every year. Of course that will be their win rate!”
But that simplistic view doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny. For starters, since the turn of the millennium, the Americans have won 37 of the 68 majors to have taken place. That’s impressive, but such a win/ratio of 54 per cent falls well below the aforementioned 73 per cent average for the last 105 years, suggesting that American dominance is somewhat on the wane.
However, let’s dig a little deeper to see what lies beneath, shall we? Ever since Arnold Palmer won his first Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1961, the USA has seen a staggering 30 Claret Jugs cross their borders, which equates to a win ratio of more than 45 per cent. Not bad for a bunch of guys who allegedly can’t play links golf, huh?
But on the flip side of the coin, non-Americans won no fewer than 11 times at the Masters alone in the 1980s and 1990s, while the US Open has been a fairly happy hunting ground for them too, with 11 wins since 1994.
And then there’s the PGA. Get this for one that stands out in terms of golf majors facts: non-Americans have collectively won the Wanamaker Trophy no fewer than 12 times since 1990, and, impressively, six out of the last nine years! It’s surely the final nail in the coffin for the argument that home turf is the decisive factor in whether an American or non-American player emerges victorious in a major. Perhaps it really does just come down to who plays the best golf that week?
That’s not to undermine the continued superiority of the USA within the majors, which is not in dispute. Clearly with their incredible depth of talent, enormous resources, and the popularity of the game there, they remain the major force in the modern game. But they certainly aren’t untouchable, and recent trends suggest the gap is closing rapidly.
Away with the PGA?
Okay, so, let’s get this point out the way… I’ve never been a massive fan of the PGA Championship. Too many commercial breaks on the networks, a lack of memorable finishes and ultimately an enduring inferiority complex mean I sometimes have to rack my brains to remember who won the damned thing the year before – a problem I don’t have with the other majors.
But suffice to say, it could do the game of golf the power of good to think outside the box, and it’s interesting to note that in recent years, the PGA of America have toyed with the idea of shipping their flagship event offshore.
Whether or not such an idea ever leads to any meaningful action remains to be seen, but golf needs to think as global as it possibly can if it is to continue to grow in this hugely competitive world, and giving audiences from far and wide a glimpse of the cream of the crop up close, while fighting tooth and nail for a major title, can only be a good thing.
Not to mention that it may increase the current paltry total of 19 nations who can lay claim to possessing at least one major champion. That may appear to run counter to the claims above about home advantage being less significant than it once was, but by spreading the game’s major wings to lands previously untouched, who knows what kind of players we could unearth in the long run, as impressionable youngsters take to our great sport after watching the PGA?
Better with age?
One of golf’s most fascinating nuances is that, even in the professional game, an 18-year old has as much chance of winning as a 50-year old – even in the majors. Young Tom Morris is the youngest winner of a major to date, having got the job done at the 1868 Open Championship aged 17. In the modern era, Tiger Woods is the youngest to have entered the big time, as he won the Masters aged 21 and three months.
At the other end of the scale, Jules Boros is the oldest major champion having won the 1968 PGA aged 48 years and four months, although Jack Nicklaus’s ‘Yes sir!’ triumph at Augusta in 1986 at the ripe old age of 46 was a masterclass in what can be achieved by the older generation.
Perhaps the best example of how open-ended this upper extreme can be in the game of golf was at Turnberry in 2009, when 59-year old tournament leader Tom Watson was denied the Claret Jug only by a cruel bounce after a perfect approach to the 72nd hole. His subsequent 3-putt bogey led to a playoff, which he unfortunately lost. But he well and truly made his mark that day, and provided plenty of encouragement to his fellow seniors that, even once the clock strikes 50, a professional golfer’s race isn’t yet run in the majors.
But has all that translated into results – and, more specifically, victories – for the older players in major championships recently? Interestingly, four out of the last six Open champions were aged 40 or more at the time of their wins.
That said, no other major has produced an over-40 winner in that time. In fact, in the 25 years preceding Darren Clarke’s victory at Royal St George’s in 2011, just six majors accrued among players in their fifth decade. That pretty much falls into line with the overall win percentage for over 40s since 1960, which stands at around 9 per cent. So it would seem that, the Open aside, the older crowd are roughly as competitive as they’ve always been.
The Battle of North and South
One thing which isn’t in dispute is that the Southern Hemisphere has increasingly made its presence felt in majors as time has gone on. The first major champion from the bottom half of the globe was Australia’s Jim Ferrier, who surprisingly went all the way to win the 1947 PGA. He also broke a 161-tournament duck for the Southern Hemisphere contingent (albeit that Southern Hemisphere players didn’t compete in the early days of the Open Championship).
Since then, the men from the South have won an impressive 50 majors, which equates to a win ratio of 18 per cent. But this is a trend which continues to move upwards. Following Ferrier’s conquest in ‘47, the Southern Hemisphere enjoyed a win percentage of 16 per cent for the remainder of the 20th century.
However, in the post Y2K era, this has climbed to an even-more-impressive 23.5 per cent, meaning they average just under one major per calendar year in the 21st century. Given the tremendous might and historical strength of countries in the Northern Hemisphere, such competition from the South in the majors has been incredibly healthy for the game.
It was Mark Twain who popularized the expression: ‘There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics.’
Of course, any statistic leaves itself open to interpretation, and thus two people could glean very different conclusions from the same original set of numbers. It’s precisely why it is important to always consider every possible angle of a debate, and ensure that apples are compared with apples when making any assessments of significance.
There are so many golf majors facts and figures, numbers and a whole lot more and despite our exhaustive efforts above, we have likely only scratched the surface. But it was enough for us to fairly confidently ascertain the following:
- America’s dominance continues, but at a notably diminishing rate
- In recent years, locations of majors (i.e. on American soil or abroad) has played a less and less significant role in determining major champions
- There is a significant discrepancy between Asian major winners in the men’s game and the women’s game
- Players over the age of 40 continue to be a force to be reckoned with; every bit as much as they always have
- The Southern Hemisphere continues to close the gap on their Northern neighbors
- Most importantly, golf has a lot of work to do if it wants to become a genuinely global game
- We hope you’ve had fun mulling over the findings we’ve dredged up. We’ve certainly enjoyed delving into the major archives for you. We trust the above will give you plenty to discuss the next time you’re out on the course, or at dinner with your friends.
But in the meantime, please do share your thoughts and comments with us on golf majors facts and figures below. We’d love to hear from you…