In the 1970s and 1980s, Watson was one of the leading players in the world, winning eight major championships and heading the PGA Tour money list five times. He was the number one player in the world according to McCormack's World Golf Rankings from 1978 until 1982; in both 1983 and 1984, he was ranked second behind Seve Ballesteros. He also spent 32 weeks in the top 10 of the successor Sony Rankings in their debut in 1986.
Watson is also notable for his longevity: at nearly sixty years of age, and 26 years after his last major championship victory, he led after the second and third rounds of The Open Championship in 2009, but lost in a four-hole playoff. With a chance to win the tournament with par on the 72nd hole, he missed an 8-foot (2.4 m) putt, then lost to Stewart Cink in the playoff.
Several of Watson's major victories came at the expense of Jack Nicklaus, the man he replaced as number one, most notably the 1977 Masters, 1977 Open Championship, and the 1982 U.S. Open. Though his rivalry with Nicklaus was intense, their friendly competitiveness served to increase golf's popularity during the time.
In Watson's illustrious career, his eight major championships include five Open Championships, two Masters titles, and one U.S. Open title. The only major that has eluded him is the PGA Championship, which would put him in an elite group of golfing "career grand slam" winners that includes Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. In all, Watson's eight majors ranks sixth on the list of total major championship victories, behind only Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Hogan, and Player.
Watson is also regarded as one of the greatest links players of all time, a claim backed up by his five Open Championship victories; as well as his 2nd-place finish in the 2009 Open Championship, and his three Senior British Open Championship titles in his mid-50s (2003, 2005, and 2007).
Watson played on four Ryder Cup teams and captained the American side to victory in 1993 at The Belfry in England. More than twenty years later, Watson again captained the U.S. Team in 2014 in Scotland, this time in a loss.