We all know that Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors, Tiger Woods has won 14, Walter Hagen won 11, Gene Sarazen won seven and Byron Nelson won five.
Or did they?
The widely accepted view today is that golf’s four majors championships consist of the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship (the British Open), and the PGA Championship.
Historical statistics reflect this modern day view.
Walter Hagen’s 11 major championship wins are based on his performance at the Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.
The same holds true for Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
However, this widely accepted criterion upon which we base a golfer’s career success is not necessarily accurate.
The US Open, British Open and PGA Championship have been considered majors almost since their inception, albeit the fields were minuscule and only 36 holes were played during the early years of the British Open.
When we look towards the Masters, however, the waters begin to become a little murky.
Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts held the first Masters tournament in 1934 at Augusta National, although it was called the Augusta National Invitational at the time.
Although the Masters was born in 1934, the early years were more or less a gathering of a small group of players that Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts personally decided to invite.
In essence, the early Masters tournaments would have been the equivalent to today’s Chevron World Challenge, where Tiger Woods personally chooses the field based on the World Golf Rankings, and players he personally likes.
That being said, in the 1930’s and even into the mid-to-late 1940’s (some would even say that the Masters didn't evolve into a major until the 1950s), the Masters had not yet evolved into a major championship.
At that time, the four professional majors were considered to be the British Open, the US Open, the PGA Championship and the Western Open.
The US and British National Amateur Tournaments were also considered to be majors, although professionals were not allowed to compete in those events.
That means that even though the Masters was more or less the Chevron World Challenge until the mid-late 1940s at the earliest, those players who won the Masters between 1934 and the mid-to-late 1940s are now considered to have won majors.
Moreover, all those players who won Western Opens between 1899 and the late 1940s would have been considered major champions at the time, but have lost those major titles throughout the course of history.
That would be the modern day equivalent to the Chevron World Challenge evolving into a major over the course of the next 20 years and taking the place of the PGA Championship as golf’s fourth major.
Then 30 years from now, those players who have won Chevron World Challenges during the early years, such as Davis Love III and Luke Donald, would be considered major champions, and all those players who won PGA Championships prior to 2030 would see those majors disappear from their accepted list of major championship titles.
Based on this information, the current list of major championship winners that we recognize without a second thought is grossly inaccurate.
Walter Hagen is considered to have won 11 majors. However, he also won the Western Open five times during a time when it was considered to be one of golf’s four major championships. So in reality, during Hagen’s career he actually won 16 major championships and should be ranked second only to Jack Nicklaus in terms of all-time major victories.
Gene Sarazen, who won the 1935 Masters, is considered to have won seven majors during his career. In reality Sarazen did win seven majors, but only because he won the Western Open in 1930.
Byron Nelson is considered to have won five majors. However, Nelson won the Masters twice between the years of 1935 and 1942. Even in 1942 the Masters was not really considered to be a major championship.
Nelson did win the 1939 Western Open though. So in reality, Nelson won four major championships during his career—two PGA Championships, a US Open and a Western Open.
Jim Barnes is considered to have won four major championships—the PGA Championship twice (1916 & 1919), the US Open once (1921) and the British Open once (1925).
But Barnes also won the Western Open three times between the years of 1914 and 1919. So, during Barnes career he actually won seven major championships and his name should appear alongside players such as Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Harry Vordon who also won seven career majors.
In golf, perhaps more than any other sport, we love to compare players between different eras.
But if we are going to do so with any sense of accuracy, we need to first identify what does and does not constitute a major championship victory, because the current criteria upon which we base our comparisons are far from accurate.