James Braid may be best celebrated for his five Open Championship victories, but he was also a prolific golf architect who left his mark on more than 400 British and Irish courses, including Gleneagles, Carnoustie and Prestwick. In the first of a new series, Duncan Lennard examines the great Scot’s contribution to course design.
ames Braid ought to be buried in his own bunker, with a niblick through his heart...”
This somewhat hissy verdict was offered by JH Taylor at Prestwick in 1914, shortly after missing out on a fifth Open Championship. Fighting Harry Vardon for the Gold Medal, Taylor had reached the 4th two shots ahead. In front of him was a familiar hole of around 360 yards, arcing right around the Pow Burn. Until recently this had been a straightforward drive up the left; but now a new bunker, 200 yards hence, tightened up that open side and offered a tempting, corner-cutting line between it and the burn. Taylor took it on, found a poor lie on the edge of the burn... and from here, hit into it. He ended up with a 7. Vardon meanwhile, played safely left around all the trouble, made his 4, and ended up winning by three for his record sixth Championship.
The new bunker had been sited by a 44-year-old James Braid. His career as an architect taking off, the Scot had been invited to consult on new bunker placements at what was already a venerable old course.
Braid had always loved the idea of filtering tee shots by giving advantage to a courageous and accurate blow. There should be as frequently as possible two alternative methods of playing a hole, an easy one and a difficult one, he had written back in 1908 in his book, Advanced Golf. And there should be a chance of gaining a stroke when the latter is chosen and the attempt is successful. It might be a bit of a stretch to say Braid invented risk-reward – after all, most holes on the Old Course at St Andrews embody it – but no architect did more to put this strategy – now accepted the world over – into the mainstream of golf course design. This bunker on the 4th was Braid’s policy in action, and like all great gambles, it had the power to seduce. JH Taylor had been suckered in; and the anger in his response tells us that, at some level, he knew it.
A change of course
James Braid was born in 1870 and died in 1950 – two years that could almost bookend golf’s epic journey from curious cult practised among the dunescapes of Scotland to one of the world’s most popular sports.
In 1870 there were only some 30 golf courses in existence; the year before, the opening of Hoylake, Wimbledon Common and Alnmouth had bought England’s total to five. Seven months after Braid was born, Tom Morris Junior lapped a field of 20 to claim the £6 first prize at the 10th Open Championship. Golf pros were little more than glorified caddies.
But by the year of his death golf was a truly global game, played by millions on countless golf courses from Perth to the other Perth. Ben Hogan had just struck his famous 1-iron at Merion, the Ryder Cup was in
American hands for the sixth time in eight matches and the New World had been playing golf long enough for Herbert Warren Wind to pen a history of it.
Golf’s phenomenal growth at the turn of the 19th century has been attributed to many things – cheaper, better equipment, more social mobility, easier course construction and maintenance through increasing mechanisation. Yet arguably more important than all of these was the sheer presence of the Great Triumvirate – golf’s first superstars. Braid, Vardon and Taylor were all born within a year of each other. Their epic battles between 1900 and the Great War introduced the public to the skill, beauty and drama of golf; but above all they communicated a deep love of the game… and no one moreso than Braid himself.
More than anything, Braid loved playing golf. He recalled his earliest childhood memory as “at five or six years old, running about with a miniature club in my hand and knocking a ball with it at every chance that presented itself”. He merged his passion for the game with his considerable skills in becoming one of its preeminent players, and he is of course best-known for winning five Open Championships in the 10 years between 1901 and 1910.
But towards the end of his playing career, he increasingly channelled his devotion into course design. His very first tweaks were at Romford in Essex, the course he served as club pro from 1896 to 1904. But the first course where he broke virgin land was in 1897, some 10 miles to the north, a pretty nine holes among the oak, beech and hornbeam of Epping Forest at Theydon Bois. It didn’t even cost the club a fiver; he was paid four pounds, 13 shillings and sixpence.
Even Braid himself could not have guessed that Theydon Bois would be the first of a design career that surely makes him golf’s most prolific architect. Iain Cumming, co-author of the impressive coffee-table work James Braid and his 400 courses, estimates Braid has had a hand in some 412 golf courses across the UK and Ireland, although just shy of 100 of those were creations from scratch. Two of those were his most famous work – Gleneagles King’s and Queen’s, rapidly approaching their centenaries next year. Braid is also strongly associated with Carnoustie, a course he extensively remodelled in 1926. The rest, from Brora to Brighton and Hove, are made of anything from conversions from nine to 18 holes to consultancy fees for any and all kinds of strategic adjustments.
Given the fact car and sea-sickness ensured he only travelled by train, the extent of Braid’s course work is breathtaking. It is said he knew the connections through Crewe so well that he didn’t even need a timetable. “I always got the impression he was happy to design a golf course anywhere, no matter how hopelessly unsuitable the land was,” says Ken Macpherson, a man who followed in Braid’s footsteps as club professional at Walton Heath. “Braid was passionate about spreading the gospel of golf, if you like, and I think he came to see building golf courses as the ultimate expression of that. Take Finchley for example, a perhaps unpromising site threatened by the expanding north London suburbs. But in 1929 Braid laid out a charming course here. Confined, hilly, flat, built up… it didn’t matter to Braid; if he was asked, and he had the time, he would have said yes.”
James Braid played his golf in an era when courses were designed by golfers, not architects. The courses of Old Tom Morris (Prestwick 1851), Tom Dunn (Broadstone, 1898) or Willie Park Jnr (Sunningdale Old, 1901) dominated the golfing landscape, and it would be some years before the likes of Harry Colt and Alister Mackenzie would announce themselves as professional course designers.
As such, Braid’s ideas on golf courses were born through his unrivalled experience of playing the game – in all landscapes, and in all conditions. He was if nothing else versatile, adapting his ideas to the land and budget in front of him. Because of this, summing up a ‘typical’ Braid design is one of golf ’s trickier assignments.
“He would react to a landscape, rather than try to force his ideas on it,” says Cumming. “He also worked across a vast range of landscapes, budgets and mandates. Because of this, it is hard to identify recurring patterns in his work.”
That said, Braid clearly laid out his preferences for golf course design in Advanced Golf. Contained in these pages is a series of tenets that are now almost axiomatic as part of setting up a challenge for the golfer.
Consider for example his insistence on a variety of teeing grounds, to offer not just options for varying playing conditions but also to accommodate different standards of player. It’s something we take for granted today, but in Braid’s day teeing grounds were limited.
Braid also considered a hole’s bunkering and strategy should be designed to reward not just tee shot power but also positioning. His work at Carnoustie is in many ways symptomatic of these beliefs. Brought in to
‘IT IS ESTIMATED THAT IN ALL, BRAID HAD A HAND IN SOME 412 COURSES ACROSS THE UK AND IRELAND.’
remodel the course for its 1931 Open debut, he immediately set about removing some 80 bunkers which he felt affected only lesser golfers, and building 60 new traps – each with its own unique shaping. Each bunker performed a specific duty, either tightening a short approach or asking more searching questions of the drive – and none more so than one he placed in the centre of the yawning 6th fairway. It created two routes – a safer one up the right that brings a ditch into play for the second, or a narrow tiger line up the left that courts out-of-bounds but leaves a much more favourable line in. Thus was born Hogan’s Alley. Risk/reward, testing traps and intensifying of attack angles… all in one hit. The bunker he placed in the fairway at the 2nd performs a similar function.
As Taylor’s reaction at Prestwick suggests, such bunkers led to criticisms that a ‘straight’ drive should not be punished. But in bringing bunkers more into play, Braid redefined what a straight drive was. Perhaps for the first time, the tee shot would be as much about brains as brawn.
Braid’s other articles of faith were based around fairness of punishment – smaller greens for shorter holes – and variety of challenge, especially in the par 3 holes, to which he attached special importance. “As at his most celebrated creation, the King’s Course at Gleneagles, Braid liked the idea of four one-shotters in a round,” adds Cumming. “But it was important to him that they played at different lengths and if at all possible, in different directions. This is why, in gauging a piece of land, he would look for par 3 sites first. Then he would plan in the longer holes, and use the versatility of par 4s to link them all up.”
Of course this was not always possible. On the King’s, two par 3s play west, one north east and one north west. Down in Cornwall at St Enodoc, where there are five shorties, he got closer – the 5th is south, the 8th north east, the 11th west, the 15th south east and 17th south west. But it is rare to play a Braid course without gaining a perception of the importance given to par 3s. The King’s’ perched 5th green and St Enodoc’s 5th and 15th, both played over an entrancing valley, stand as perfect examples.
Another King’s par 3 – the tiny 140-yard 16th – is a stirring example of one trait we could pin on Braid. “He was generally known to be the best – or perhaps most savage – bunkerer,” says Cumming. The 16th features no fewer than nine bunkers around it, four stretched across the front and five flanking the putting surface. Two holes earlier, the 10 bunkers of the 309yard 14th show how aggressively he protected short par 4s. The five deep traps guarding the green of the final hole at Stranraer – the last course Braid designed, in 1950, and aptly named ‘Braid’s Last’ – proves he showed no signs of mellowing in old age.
A lasting legacy
James Braid never lived to see Stranraer completed. He died in 1950 – to his last day the head pro at Walton Heath, the club he had served for 46 years. He was laid to rest in the course’s local churchyard, St Peter’s, just a firm mashie from his shop. Ken Macpherson was given the honour of tending his grave by Braid’s daughter-in-law… but only on the understanding nothing was done to give the impression James was more important than any one else in the graveyard. “His gravestone doesn’t even mention anywhere that he was a golfer,” he adds. Braid’s humility was legendary. There is a picture of him, taken in the twilight of his years, in which he is hunkered down under an umbrella, in a Mackintosh and mittens. He is on the first tee at Walton Heath, starting a group of visiting golfers. Never mind that he was a five-time Open Champion or the creator of Gleneagles; he was head pro at Walton Heath, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to be anywhere else. It’s said a golf architect’s personality comes out in his designs. Yes, Braid designed the mighty Gleneagles: but his zeal to put a golf course on any patch of land epitomises his utter immunity to hauteur. Not for him the reflected glory of a signature layout; a working-class lad, he just wanted to take a game hitherto the province of the landed gentry, and give it to the people. Mission accomplished.
James Braid and his 400 courses
(RRP £25) is published by Grant Books (www.grantbooks.co.uk)
‘HE WAS GENERALLY KNOWN TO BE THE BEST – OR MOST SAVAGE – BUNKERER, AS THE KING’S PAR-3 16TH SHOWS.’
St Enodoc is still Braid’s work, the 16th one of just two newer greens.
The King’s 16th green may be in a bowl but fierce bunkering rules out a kindly kick.
A man of few words, Braid’s humility belied his achievements in all walks of the game.