The Four Golf Majors: A Complete Guide

By Todd Mrowice

Jordan Spieth at 2017 British Open

Professional golf has an ironclad way of determining the greatest golfers of all-time: the four major championships. The Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and British Open are the four pinnacle golf tournaments contested annually to distinguish the best golfers in the world. What differentiates these four events and where are they contested? Here is a guide to learn more.

The Masters

Hideki Matsuyama wearing Masters green jacket

The Masters is the first major tournament of the year, traditionally held in early April an exception in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament is played at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Augusta National Golf Club was designed by legendary golfer Bobby Jones in 1930, and it was Jones' idea to hold a championship tournament at the course.

The first Masters was held in 1934, and it has always been played at Augusta National Golf Club. The tournament is unique in that the winner is awarded a Green Jacket to signify his status as Masters champion.

The Masters also features an annual Par 3 contest on the eve of the tournament on Augusta National's Par 3 course. The Par 3 contest brings family members into the action and often includes players intentionally disqualifying themselves from contention, as no player has ever won the Par 3 event and gone on to win the Green Jacket.

The size of the Masters field is determined by 20 different qualification categories. Past champions, champions and top finishers of other the majors, the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Rankings, and champions of prestigious amateur events, including the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, Asia-Pacific Amateur, Latin American Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur receive an invitation.

Horton Smith was the inaugural champion in 1934, while Jack Nicklaus has won the most Masters wins in history with six (1963, '65, '66, '72, '75, '86).

Fun Fact: Magnolia Lane, the main road entrance to the clubhouse, is 330 yards long.

PGA Championship

Phil Mickelson at 2021 PGA championship

The first PGA Championship was played in 1916, and it coincided with Walter Hagen and a small group of other professional golfers creating the Professional Golfers' Association of America.

When the PGA Championship was first introduced it was played as match play where competitors played each other one at a time as opposed to matching scores with the entire field. In 1958 the format was changed to stroke play, and that is how the PGA Championship has been played ever since. The event was traditionally held in August and was the final major of the year. That was, until 2019 when it was moved to the month of May.

The PGA Championship winner receives the Wanamaker Trophy, and Jim Barnes was the inaugural champion in 1916.

Interestingly, the PGA Championship is the only all-professional field of the four majors. There is no access to champions of prestigious amateur golf champions as the other three majors allow. Given this, the PGA Championship boasts the strongest field of any golf tournament.

While no amateurs are part of the PGA Championship, 20 PGA club pros qualify each year through the PGA Professional National Championship. Unlike when an amateur makes the cut at another major, the club pros who make the weekend get to cash a check just like the tour professionals.

Walter Hagen (1921, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927) and Jack Nicklaus (1963, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1980) are tied for the most PGA Championship victories with five each.

Fun Fact: The age difference between the youngest and oldest winners at the time of victory is 30 years. Gene Sarazen won at the age of 20 in 1922 and Phil Mickelson won at age 50 in 2021.

U.S. Open Championship

Jon Rahm wins 2020 U.S. Open

The United States Open Championship got its start on a small nine-hole golf course in Newport, Rhode Island in the summer of 1895. In the early days of competitive golf, the amateur championships were considered much more prestigious than the professional tournaments, so for many years, the U.S. Open Championship took a back seat to the United States Amateur Championship.

The U.S. Open started to take on significance around the 1910s when American golfers began to dominate throughout the world. The U.S. Open Championship is held each year in June and is played on some of the best golf courses that the United States has to offer. The U.S. Open is notorious for giving players the toughest test in golf. Course setups often include narrow fairways, rough that borders unplayable, and lightning-quick greens. While players annually bemoan the course setups, the one who best navigates the tricky conditions takes home the U.S. Open trophy.

Horace Rawlins was the inaugural U.S. Open Champion at Newport Country Club in 1895. Four players have won a record four U.S. Open Championships, including Willie Anderson (1901, 1903, 1904, 1905), Bobby Jones (1923, 1926, 1929, 1930), Ben Hogan (1948, 1950, 1951, 1953), Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, 1980).

Fun Fact: The U.S. Open famously rotates sites, but in 2020 it was announced that Pinehurst No. 2 will be an anchor site for the event, hosting in 2024, 2029, 2035, 2041, and 2047.

The British Open

Collin Morikawa wins 2021 British Open

The British Open is the oldest of all of the major professional golf tournaments. Officially known as the Open Championship, it began in Prestwick, Scotland in 1860. Since that time it has been commonly referred to as simply The Open, and it is circulated through several of the more prominent links golf courses in England and Scotland.

The most famous British Open venue remains The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. The Open was played there for the first time in 1873, and has been played there 26 more times since.

Willie Park Sr. was the first winner of the Open Championship in 1860, and Harry Vardon holds the record for most British Open Championships with six. The winner of the British Open receives the Claret Jug.

About the Author

Todd Mrowice is a Staff Writer for GolfLink. He has been writing about golf for over 10 years including a long tenure at GOLFChicago Magazine. Todd has covered all aspects of the game including travel, products, business, and professional tours.