Jack’s Place: When talking majors, Nicklaus can’t be beat

Jack's PlaceMajor golf championships started before the Civil War: Willie Park won the first British Open, a 36-hole affair at Prestwick, in 1860. The U.S. Open debuted in 1895, and it was followed by the PGA Championship (1916) and the Masters (1934). To identify the greatest major championship players of all time, SI Golf Group devised a point system, and in the end, Jack Nicklaus—the record holder with 18 professional majors—emerged as the greatest major champion. The magazine started with the 1892 British because that was the first year the event was contested over 72 holes. While players from more than a century ago competed in only two majors a year, keep in mind that fields were considerably smaller, meaning it was easier to accumulate top 10s. So the playing field is somewhat leveled when comparing one era with another.

Point System

First 100
Second 70
Third 65
Fourth 60
Fifth 55
Sixth 50
Seventh 45
Eighth 40
Ninth 35
10th 30
11th-17th 25
18th-25th 20
26th-30th 15
31st-40th 10
41st+* 5

*finishing 72 holes

Rank Player Points Starts Masters U.S. Open British Open PGA
1 Jack Nicklaus 5,810 164 6 wins, 4 seconds 4 wins, 4 seconds 3 wins, 7 seconds 5 wins, 4 seconds
Surprised? Big Jack played in the most majors and had the most wins (18), most seconds (19) and most top 10s (73).
2 Sam Snead 3,730 118 3 wins, 8 top-3s 4 seconds 1 win, 5 starts 3 wins, 2 other finals
Had seven wins and 60 top 25s; his biggest disappointment was that he never won the U.S. Open.
3 Gary Player 3,600 150 3 wins, 15 top-10s 1 win, 2 seconds 3 wins in three decades 2 wins, 2 seconds
Nine wins and 18 top threes, and his 70 top 25s are second only to Nicklaus’s 95.
4 Tom Watson 3,535 140 2 wins, 3 seconds 1 win, 2 seconds 5 wins, 2 seconds 1 second
His eight wins are sixth-all time, but he never won the PGA, losing in a playoff in 1978.
5 Tiger Woods 3,255 70 4 wins, 11 top-5s 3 wins, 2 seconds 3 wins, 2 thirds 4 wins, 2 seconds
Has a remarkable 20 percent win rate, but his victory drought is at six years and counting.
6 Gene Sarazen 3,215 116 1 win 2 wins, 7 top-3s 1 win 3 wins in match play
First player to win the modern Grand Slam, and the first to win the U.S. Open and the PGA in the same year (1922).
7 Arnold Palmer 3,195 142 4 wins, 9 top-4s 1 win, 4 seconds 2 wins, 1 second Three seconds
His seven wins came in a six-year window, and he was a 10-time runner-up over his career.
8 Ray Floyd 2,715 127 1 win, 1 second 1 win 1 second 2 wins, 1 second
Turned his only top-five in the U.S. Open into a victory in 1986 and was two back of Jack at the 1978 British.
T9 Ben Hogan 2,705 58 2 wins, 4 seconds 4 wins, 10 top-5s 1 win in only start 2 wins in match play
Fabulous record for a late bloomer who coped with the Depression, World War II, and a serious car accident.
T9 Phil Mickelson 2,705 86 3 wins, 5 thirds 6 seconds 1 win, 1 second 1 win, 1 second
Didn’t win his first major until age 34, and he holds a dubious record in the U.S. Open.
11 Walter Hagen 2,630 54 No top-10s Two wins, 1 second Four wins, 1 second Five wins in match play
Most wins of anyone before World War II, and his 20.7 percent win rate is the best of all time.
12 Ernie Els 2,610 85 Two seconds Two wins, 1 second Two wins, 9 top-fives 2 thirds
Has won majors in three decades, and he was in contention on Sunday in six of Tiger’s 14 victories.
13 Greg Norman 2,405 91 3 seconds, 9 top-sixes Two seconds Two wins, 1 second Two seconds
What could have been—he was in the hunt, if not in the lead, in a dozen majors on the back nine on Sunday.
14 Nick Faldo 2,390 98 3 wins Lost playoff in 1988 3 wins, 1 second 1 second, 1 third
Six-time winner, made most of his opportunities after being in contention just 12 times.
15 Ben Crenshaw 2,366 116 2 wins, 2 seconds 1 third 2 seconds Lost playoff in 1979
In contention more than a dozen times, but had problems closing the door on the back nine.
16 Tom Kite 2,200 109 3 seconds 1 win 1 second 2 fourths
Accumulated a lot of points due to longevity as well as his 16 top-fives.
17 Lee Trevino 2,180 89 Tenth two times 2 wins 2 wins, 1 second 2 wins, 1 second
Only flaw for this six-time champion was his indifferent play at Augusta National.
18 Fred Couples 2,120 96 1 win, 11 top-10s One third Two thirds One second
Contended in all four and was at his best in the Masters (five top-5s) and the British (nine top-10s).
19 Byron Nelson 2,115 53 2 wins, 2 seconds 1 win, 1 second 1 fifth 2 wins in match play
Excellent record despite playing during the Great Depression and World War II, retired in his prime at age 34.
20 Billy Casper 2,090 94 1 win, 1 second 2 wins 1 fourth 3 seconds
Won in three decades and only played the British five times, never before age 38.