Golf’s major season is coming at us thick and fast which means on every 72nd hole and every post-round analysis we’re inundated with conjecture about the tidal wave of majors that so-and-so will claim now that they’ve finally won their first. Yuka Saso, the 19 year old who won the US Women’s Open is the most recent recipient of this excitement; Hideki Matsuyama was another. I even heard serious discussion about how Phil Mickelson’s PGA Championship at Kiawah might be a harbinger for a mini-wave of major contention for the 50 year-old. Get him on the right course, they say, and he can compete.
The truth is, we’re always in search of the next great thing in sports. We want to experience greatness, and greatness in golf comes in the form of major championships. Phil’s PGA triumph sent him to the next level, six majors is better than five. He’s now in the upper crust of modern golfers. Leaving Seve, Byron Nelson, Peter Thomson, J. Taylor, and James Braid behind. If Phil could win one more and get his seventh major, he’d join Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, and Arnold Palmer. That’s some heady company.
It also goes to show how hard it is to win majors. Some of the greatest golfers of their generation won seven majors. That fact makes it more insane when Golf Channel rushes to predict that Gary Woodland or Jason Dufner has more majors in their future only hours after they lift their first major trophy.
I decided to dive into some of the numbers to just see how much time a player usually has between majors to win the next one. As soon as they kiss that trophy the golf gods start their clock - time is ticking. I did have to make a decision about where to start my research, so I set the cut off at after World War 2. That leaves out some iconic golfers like Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, and Walter Hagen. But if you look at the list of major winners, it’s clear the scattershot nature of majors and the different events that were considered majors (US and British Amateurs), 1946 and the resumption of golf following the WW2 pause felt like a clear bright line.
FACT #1: The Average Time Between a First and Second Major is 3.5 Years
Since 1946, 48 players have won 2 or more majors in their careers. The average time between their first two majors is 3.5 years, whether it’s Jack Nicklaus who would go on to win 18 majors or Mark O’Meara who won his only two majors in the spring and summer of 1998. The outliers of the bunch are Julius Boros and Ben Crenshaw, who took 11 years chasing their second major before winning it (Boros won a third major as a 48 year old. If I wrote this a month ago, he would have been the oldest major winner ever).
3.5 years in this day and age feels like an eternity. We watched Jordan Spieth and Rory and Brooks collect majors at a breakneck pace this past decade. Spieth won his first two in 2015, no 3.5 year wait for him. Brooks and Rory only waited a year to win their second majors. All three of those guys won their second major faster than Tiger and Jack. Rory and Spieth were also young and Brooks was new to golf’s zeitgeist but not to the pro scene, having spent time grinding in Europe. Compare those three modern studs to Dustin Johnson, who is nearly nails the 3.5 year average between first two majors. He won the US Open in 2016 and the Masters in 2020. Considering DJ’s age when he won in 2016 (32) and the collection of close calls he had before his US Open breakthrough in 2016, the wait for his first two majors felt like a lifetime.
FACT #2: It Takes 5.4 Years to Win Three Majors.
When we take out the two major group, our pool of winners shrinks from 48 to 27. It took an average of 5.4 years for players to collect their first three majors, no matter how many they win in total. Some players win all three in the blink of an eye like Padraig Harrington who needed only five events during the 2008-2009 season at the age of 36. Then there’s Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy who all took under three years to collect three majors. Winning three majors in short order is a bit of a bellwether for more majors, which makes sense.
However, the players that win a total of three majors typically have to wait towards the end of their career to win that third one. Boros and Hale Irwin took 16 years to win all three of their majors. Jimmy Demaret and Billy Casper took ten and eleven years, respectively. Hale Irwin waited 11 years between his second and third major. On the other side of the spectrum, Nick Price won his second and third in 1994 at the age of 37.
Not including Spieth, who likely isn’t done winning majors… the average age of a player when winning his third and final major is 40.1. Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, and Bobby Locke’s average age when they won their fourth and final major was 42.3. Rory and Brooks are still major hunting, but if they never win another major, that average age would shrink to 36.
FACT #3: Four-Time Major Winners Take an Average of 9.6 Years to Collect Their Majors.
If a player hopes to go from the group of three majors to the group of four major winners, he has has about four years. That’s not a rule, per se, but the five players who have won four majors took an average of 9.6 years to win them all, but it took 5.6 years to win their first three; those extra four years were spent trying to to win the fourth and final trophy. Again, Brooks and Rory kind of mess up some of the math because they won their fourth major in no time.
If you take those two players out, Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, and Bobby Locke took an average of eight years to win their first three majors and then took an average of six years between the third and fourth major. That’s a long wait!
Els is in rare air as far as the time between his first and last major: 18 years. Floyd won his first major in 1969 and his last in 1986. Of course, Els was overshadowed by Tiger Woods and might have missed his window by a decade. If Els shows up around the early 1980s, he might have collected a green jacket or two and been sitting in the six major club.
Bobby Locke is an interesting case in this group of four major winners. He won four Open Championships from 1949-57. There was one man, Max Faulkner, who won the Open from 1949-1958 who was not named Peter Thomson or Bobby Locke. An extraordinary post-WW2 stretch (from 1960-1966 Palmer and Nicklaus won seven of the nine Masters with Art Wall Jr. and some guy named Gary Player collecting the other two green jackets.)
Seve and Peter Thomson were abandoned by Phil Mickelson at Kiawah in the five major club last month. Thomson, like Bobby Locke, won all his majors at the Open Championship. Both men did their major winning in rather short order. Seve collected his six majors in nine years, between the ages of 22 and 31; Thomson took 11 years, which is remarkable given he only won Open Championships.
FACT #4: The Wait for The Last Major Victory Is Typically Long.
What’s fascinating about every cluster of major winners is the time it takes on average to win their final major. It takes nearly twice as long to win the first and penultimate major as it takes from the penultimate to the final major. For example, the group of three major winners took around four years to win their first two majors. But then they waited another four years between the second and third. This trend continues with the four major winners. That group won their first three in 5.6 years but that fourth major took an additional four years to win. Seve and Peter Thomson took an average of 4.5 years to win their first four majors, but their fifth took an extra 5.5 years (Seve took four years and Thomson took seven).
This “first major to penultimate major to final major” trend works through the group of six major winners, too. Sir Nick Faldo, Mickelson, and Lee Trevino took 6.6 years to win their first five majors, a staggeringly short amount of time. But to collect that pesky sixth and final major took about eight more years (Faldo waited four years between his fifth and sixth major, whereas Trevino waited ten and Mickelson waited eight). Faldo’s stretch of major golf from 1989-1997 was pretty impressive, but he never could find a major in his 40s. He played his best golf from ages 32-39. Golf has a funny way of putting you in your place, Faldo doesn’t feel like a seven-time major winner. That would put him in a group with Palmer and Sam Snead, and with all due respect to Sir Nick, he’d feel like an imposter.
Majors are incredibly difficult to win, but guys like Arnold Palmer (seven majors), Sam Snead (seven majors), Gary Player (nine majors), and Ben Hogan (nine majors) made it look easy. That quartet won their first six majors in an average of eight years. That’s six years faster than it took Sir Nick, Phil, and Trevino. Palmer collected all seven of his majors in six years. Ben Hogan did his damage in seven years, winning nine majors, including three in 1953 after nearly dying when a bus destroyed his car. Palmer, Snead, Player, and Hogan did their damage in short order without much of a drought. The longest dry spell was Gary Player going four years between his fifth and sixth major. It took him seven years to win his fifth and sixth major. Jack’s longest wait between majors happened between his 1980 and his final triumph at Augusta in 1986. and Tiger went 11 years between the 2008 US Open and the 2019 Masters.
Even Jack and Tiger spent a long time chasing that final major (Of course, Tiger could always win another one and change that). Tiger won 14 majors in 11 years and then waited 11 years for his 15th.
As of right now there are five active players with three or more majors: Tiger, Phil, Brooks, Rory, and Spieth. It’s amazing to think that the two guys in this group that have won majors most recently are the old guys: Tiger in 2019 and Phil in 2021. Rory, Spieth, and Brooks are all dealing with draughts, and Rory and Spieth are also chasing a career grand slam, which piles on the pressure at the Masters for Rory and the PGA for Spieth.
On Sunday evening, a US Open champion will be crowned at Torrey Pines and during the following week the golf world will try to figure out how many more majors the national champion will collect. While golf careers are long, it seems only the greatest players collect majors quickly and also later in their career, the rest get lucky enough to collect one or two before they turn 40 years-old.
A Warning Before Making Your Picks This Week
Just remember that players like Louis Oosthuizen, who won The Open in 2010 for his only major, are not likely to win a second major. The longest any player has gone between first and second majors is Ben Crenshaw, but he won at Augusta both times. Langer waited eight years between his two green jackets. Hubert Greene and Zach Johnson also waited eight years.
However, if you like playing the averages, look at majors winners from 2017/2018 that are looking for a second major: Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, and Patrick Reed. Or maybe you think a guy like Collin Morikawa is ready to go on a little major run here and back up his 2020 PGA with a second major on his way to three or four in the next handful of years.
The sad part here is Rory has been waiting too long for his fifth major. The clock keeps ticking. It’s been seven years since his 2014 win, which is four lifetimes relative to the three years it took him to collect his first four. Yes, of course I finish this up with Rory. If you know, you know.
It’s sure to be an interesting week.