Ed Hodge marks 150 years since the birth of legendary golf course designer James Braid with a portrait of his life and review of Brora Golf Club, a Highland classic
- 150-years since Braid’s birth in Fife – he went on to win 5 Opens and design 200+ courses
- Recalling Braid’s brilliance – interview with his grand daughter Marjorie
- Communion with nature – Brora is shared by golfers, sheep and cattle
- Major Champions praise for Brora Golf Club
- Why travel sickness led to Braid designing courses in Asia via Telegram and telephone and meant his best work is British
February 2020 was unusually busy in the golfing world.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy returned to number one in the Official World Golf Rankings, the threat of Coronavirus led to tournaments in Malaysia, Thailand and China being cancelled and Tour locker rooms were full of chatter about the proposed new PGL (Premier Golf League).
Quietly, with a minimum of fuss, the 150th anniversary of the birth of a golfing master also passed by.
That’s probably how James Braid, five-time Open Champion, father of modern golf course design and inventor of the dogleg, would have wanted it.
At Walton Heath, where Braid was Head Professional and an honorary member of the club for 25 years, it was typical of his modest nature that he always entered the clubhouse by the back door.
It was on February 6, 1870 when this remarkable Scotsman was born in Earslferry, Fife, the Scottish county that is also home to St Andrews’ golf links, The Old Course and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.
He grew up to enjoy a hall-of-fame career as a player and designer.
However, Braid was never one to boast or revel in achievements, simply moving from one tournament or design lay out to the next with minimal fuss.
A quiet, understated celebration of his birthday would have just suited him fine.
“James was a very modest man, he just got on with his business,” his granddaughter, Marjorie Mackie, told me. “He wasn’t a man to show his emotions, he was a man of few words.”
Of course, his career – on and off the course – deserves all the praise and plaudits he has received.
There is an esteemed golf society founded in his name, The James Braid Golfing Society, where membership is by invitation only and allows members the opportunity to share playing rights at many of his most masterful designs including Gleneagles, Carnoustie and Royal Musselburgh.
To this day, visit any golf course in the United Kingdom and you may well find a Braid link or a feature inspired by his work.
By 1910, only 14 years after turning professional, he had remarkably become the first player in history to win The Open Championship five times.
He was one of the dominant ‘Great Triumvirate’ of the sport alongside Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor – indeed Braid’s 1906 victory at The Open was the last successful defence of the title by a European until Padraig Harrington replicated the feat in 2008.
Yet, even early in the century, golf course design was also becoming a significant part of his life.
ON TRACK TO GOLFING GREATNESS
When time allowed, he would steam north on a train from his Surrey base at Walton Heath where he had taken up the role of club pro in 1903, a position he filled until his death, aged 80, in 1950.
For the Fifer, who had honed his game on the Elie Links before relocating south, trains were his preferred, almost only, mode of transport.
Indeed, his fear of flying and motion sickness on ocean travel meant he never contested a golf event in America, or even worked on a course in the US.
While his design contemporaries Harry Colt and Dr Alister MacKenzie, he of Augusta National fame, were drawn elsewhere, taking the new game of golf to America, Braid limited his work largely to the UK.
A train journey north was typical of his lifestyle.
“He travelled by train anywhere,” recalls Marjorie.
“Harry Vardon and J H Taylor he played with a lot.
Vardon won quite a few things in America, but my grandfather would never travel there.
His whole life was golf and trains took him where he wanted, because he was such a very bad traveller.
We didn’t see an awful lot of him because he never took holidays. We saw him occasionally, first when we were in Cheshire and then in Dunbartonshire.
When he came up to take a look at a course or look at grounds to make a course, he would stay with us for a night. But mostly he didn’t even do that, as he was a quick architect. He took the train up, walked the ground with his stride – he never measured with a tape measure or anything like that – strode the course out, stored it in his head and organised the course on his return train.
It was just like that, quite often. He could create a course from just going over the ground once. That was it. That didn’t apply to Gleneagles in the end, but for a lot of courses it did.
He just simply lived for golf; he was just an all-round golf man. It’s often said that, if anything, even though he won The Open five times, his course design was even more important to him.”
Braid’s background, keen eye and understanding of design allowed him to set a standard the rest of the world had to follow.
Here was a man in whom hard labour, craftsmanship and core values were deeply engrained.
Originally trained as a carpenter and joiner within a family living on small means, he reconditioned old clubs for his own use – after all it was the era of the hickory shafted club and guttie balls – and later, in 1893, took up the position of clubmaker at the Army and Navy Stores in London.
Allied to such skills, he used his Fife farming background to ensure that courses were properly laid out and well drained.
Braid went on to design or re-model more than 250 courses around the UK, with Stranraer in Scotland’s south-west his final layout in the year of his passing.
Before World War I, this tall, slim, quiet Scot was already a formidable architect at a time when course design was in its infancy.
Braid’s legacy to golf was much more than his feats on the fairways aided by an elegant, powerful swing that gave him considerable length; he remains one of the most prolific golf course designers and was pivotal to the profession’s development.
As Marjorie mentions, Gleneagles remains one of Braid’s finest works, The King’s and Queen’s striking examples of the celebrated architect’s achievements.
Yet his influence was such that he lent his hand to the famous Open Championship links venues of Carnoustie and Royal Troon and weaved further magic among the Highland valleys and upon its stunning coastline.
The links at Brora and Nairn bear his name.
Boat of Garten, Fortrose & Rosemarkie are other notable Highland Braid designs. Royal Aberdeen, the world’s sixth oldest golf club, originally designed by the Simpson brothers – Archie and Robert of Carnoustie – was also re-bunkered and lengthened by Braid.
Other gems such as Tenby, North Hants and Thorpeness in England bear his name, while impressive work back in Scotland at Blairgowrie also raised his notoriety.
Brora, in particular, continues to charm visiting golfers.
Here is a course in the far north of Scotland’s romantic Highlands, past Dornoch where sheep and cattle roam and electric fences protect the greens.
This wonderful links venue is so much more than its unlikely communion between inquisitive animals and golf lovers.
To this day, you can imagine Braid steaming into Brora on the train and sensing the potential as the turf and landscape unfolded before him.
Amid delightful dunes, humps and hollows Brora offers a challenge and views to take the breath away.
The welcoming clubhouse offers a majestic sea frontage, before the links offers a truly awe inspiring and authentic golf experience.
Standing on the second tee, with the panorama of seascape and landscape, it is simply unique in golfing terms.
PROFESSIONAL PRAISE FOR BRORA GOLF LINKS
“James Braid had the vision to create something of great beauty,” says former Ryder Cup player Ronan Rafferty, a great lover of Brora along with the likes of two-time Major champion Sandy Lyle. “For the connoisseur, Brora is well worth the journey.”
Still accessible by rail to a town of approximately 1,200 inhabitants, you can picture Braid alighting in 1924.
While the course was founded in 1891, it was his re-design that continues to stand the test of time.
Braid’s Brora offers the traditional nine holes out, and nine holes back, measuring 6,211 yards off the white tees and a tamer 5,951 off the yellows.
With a par of 70, it was described by another five-time Open winner, Peter Thomson, as ‘one of the finest natural links courses I have had the pleasure of playing.’ The sadly deceased Thomson, who passed away in 2018, was an honorary member at Brora.
Tom Watson, again maintaining the five Open victories link, is also on the honorary list.
American visitors tee up regularly, as do a group from the Bahamas four times a year.
At Brora and many other venues, Braid went about his business like a talented craftsman to carve courses that still challenge and inspire, enchanting the eye at every turn.
To nature, Braid added the wizardry of his art.
He was never one for moving great amounts of turf, instead shaping from the wilderness using only manual labour, pick and shovel, horse and cart.
In his planning, Braid also regularly gave regard to a desire that there should be little walking between the greens and tees, ensuring the player is always moving in a direct line forward.
Courses flow unobtrusively, almost poetically, and never too tiring to play.
“He went over to Ireland a couple of times and designed some courses there, and he did go to France, in fact he won the French Open in 1910,” remembers Marjorie. “He did the faraway courses of New York and Singapore by post. I think he did very well staying where he did, working hard and enjoying his golf and design work.”
Fittingly, the 150th anniversary of Braid’s birth is being honoured this year with its own open championship, played just as the great golfer would have known – with traditional hickory wood clubs, plus fours and bunnets.
He would simply doff a tartan cap, say ‘thank you’ and move on.
That was Braid, the brilliant and modest James Braid.
Brora Golf Club
Brora Golf Club
KW9 6QS – Scotland
Tel: +44 (0) 1408 621417
You can read reviews of many of Braid’s classic here at Global Golfer Magazine