How does strength of field differ between the four men's majors? George Cooper ranks them from hardest to easiest to win
What’s the hardest golf major to win? When we refer to field strength in golf, we refer to the probability a player has to win the tournament. The stronger the field, the harder it is to win. The weaker the field, the easier it is for a player to win.
Calculating the strength of a field ultimately comes down to two core factors. These are field size – which is the number of players competing in the tournament – and field average – the quality of the average player in the field based on world rankings.
Taking each of these factors into consideration, we’ve ranked the four men’s majors in order of field strength, uncovering which of golf’s most prestigious prizes is the hardest to win. The results might come as a surprise to some…
Which major has the hardest field?
The PGA Championship has the strongest field of any of the four men’s majors. The tournament is run by Professional Golfers’ Association of America so, unlike the other three majors, no amateurs are in the field.
The top 100 in the world rankings at the cut-off point automatically qualify, and the 2021 tournament yielded a 156-player field that featured 99 of the top 100. The rest of the field comprised of former PGA Championship winners, recent PGA Tour winners, players who competed at the most recent Ryder Cup, and any player who finished in the top-15 of the previous year’s event.
The field is then made up by 20 PGA club professionals who make it into the field via qualifiers.
Coming in second is the US Open, which falls behind the PGA Championship in field strength due to its number of regional qualifiers.
While the tournament also boasts a 156-player field, a large proportion of that number consists of qualifiers, open to any professional or amateur with a handicap lower than 1.4.
At the 2021 US Open, 88 players were given automatic exemption based on the USGA’s qualification criteria. This includes former winners, the top-10 players from the previous year’s event, any major winner from the previous five years, all players who qualified for the Tour Championship, and any recent winner of the Players Championship.
Within this exemption criteria, several amateurs were also given automatic entry into the US Open. This consisted of the US Amateur winner and runner-up as well as the British Amateur winner.
The remaining spaces then remained open for qualifiers. US Open qualifying takes place in two stages, local and final, with some players exempted through to final qualifying based on their world ranking.
Of course, all of these players are still top-quality golfers. But having so many qualifiers ultimately reduces the number of players who might actually compete for the trophy compared to the PGA Championship.
As its name suggests, The Open remains golf’s most accessible major for which to qualify. The qualifying structure offers more than 2,500 entrants the chance to compete for a place in the tournament, eventually producing a field of 156.
Roughly 65 per cent of the field is exempt from qualifying. This means many of the world’s best players may still miss out on the chance to compete for the coveted Claret Jug.
Those exempt include previous Open Championship winners aged 60 and under and winners of selected big tournaments. Also in are players who finished in the top 10 of last year’s event, and any golfer ranked inside the world’s top 50.
A minimum of 46 places are then up for grabs through the Open Qualifying Series, which takes place around the world at a series of international sanctioned tournaments and local qualifying events in the UK.
The Open typically has the most amateurs compared to the other majors. In 2021, the 149th Open at Royal St George’s saw eight amateurs competing for the Silver Medal. This included automatic entry for the winners of the British Amateur, the US Amateur, the European Amateur, the Asia-Pacific Amateur and the Mark H McCormack Medal.
You may argue that it’s the most prestigious of the four majors, but, statistics-wise, at least, the Masters is the easiest to win.
While this might come as a surprise, the lack of field strength at the Masters Tournament in comparison to its counterparts falls solely on the number of players. The Masters has a significantly smaller field, with Augusta National generally inviting between 90 and 100 players each year.
Keen to promote founder Bobby Jones’ legacy, a number of these are amateurs.
Former champions are also given a lifetime exemption to play at Augusta, meaning many senior players in possession of a Green Jacket continue to come back late into their careers and claim a place in the field.
It all adds up to the pool of players who can realistically triumph around America’s most hallowed turf being surprisingly small. (Just don’t tell Rory McIlroy.)