James Braid, golfer and course architect, was born on the 6th of February, 1870.
Forget Sandy Lyle, forget Colin Montgomerie, forget Sam Torrance, Bernhard Gallagher, Uncle Tom Morris and all, the greatest Scottish golfer of all time is a figure from the past – James Braid. For his record and overall achievements, the moustachioed Braid stands figuratively head and shoulders above any other golfing Scot. He probably did the same by stature as he grew braid-like into a long man. Long before the days of carbon-fibre and titanium clubs, Braid held the world record for the longest drive. That distance was measured in 1905, at Walton Heath in England, as 395 yards. And he made it look easy, using what looks like an awesomely awkward club of hickory and pig iron with ‘gutty’ balls. Over a hundred years later, very few golfers of the modern era, equipped with their state-of-the-art drivers and aerodynamic balls have ever beaten that distance of Braid’s.
There is a case for naming Braid one of the greatest British golfers of all time, not withstanding the likes of Nick Faldo and Tony Jacklin. In Braid’s era, his domestic rivals included Harry Vardon and John H. Taylor. Collectively, they were known as the ‘Great Triumvirate’ and unsurprisingly, most sources seem to pick out Vardon as the preeminent golfer. However, as the ‘Scotsman’ reported in a well written and unbiased article by Christopher Cairns in June, 2006, there seem to be many contemporary accounts that conferred on Braid the honour of ‘best golfer in the world’. Back in the day, there wasn’t the over saturated list of professional tournaments we now see. In fact, there was only one tournament of global significance. That was the Open Championship, which Braid won five times; the first man so to do. Braid won the British Matchplay Championship an unprecedented four times, finished second in the Open on three occasions, and added the one French Open title for good measure. Surely, he must’ve done something only twice? Yes he did, he was runner-up in the British Open in 1897 and 1909.
Unfortunately for Braid, but otherwise for his rivals, especially those abroad, Braid suffered from motion sickness and couldn’t travel; neither by steam train, plain old boat nor even automobile. Poor man; the Scotsman article reports that he was often sick in the cars sent to pick him up from railway stations. Poor taxi driver. So he never made it to the United States, unlike Vardon, who did add the US Open title to his collection. In terms of ‘head-to-heads’ against Vardon, Braid won 40 out of 83 contests, with his arch rival taking 36 and the remainder being halved (that’s a draw for anyone ignorant of gowf). Braid also included 18 ‘holes-in-one’ in his career (that’s a bit like Nayim scoring from the half way line 18 times).
Another thing for which Braid is famous, is his record as a golf course architect. His legacy can be seen in the six ‘James Braid Trails’ that have been produced in partnership with VisitScotland and 30 Scottish golf courses. They go by the names of Angus, Gleneagles, Highland, Links, Lothian and West Coast and should be high on any golfer’s agenda. During his distinguished career, Braid designed, reconstructed or advised on more than 250 golf courses (sources state over 300) throughout the British Isles.
Braid was ‘The Authority’ on golf course design and his layouts are amongst the finest courses in the world. In his book, ‘Advanced Golf’ which was published by Methuen and Company in 1908, Braid set out his rules for the general features he felt every good course should possess. As example, his principles stated that there “should be a complete variety of holes, not only as regards length, but in their character” and that, with regard to bunkers “the player who does not gain [a desired] position should have his next shot made more difficult …or should be obliged to take an extra stroke.” Braid’s ‘sixth law’ of course design stated that there should be “as frequently as possible two alternative methods of playing a hole, an easy one and a difficult one, and there should be a chance of gaining a stroke when the latter is chosen and the attempt is successful.”
James Braid was born in Earlsferry, near St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, on the 6th of February, 1870. James’ earliest recollection of golf was playing with a child’s club when he was about four. Thereafter, he became fascinated with the game and learned to play golf at Elie links, where he won his first tournament at the age of eight. He trained to be a carpenter and joiner and became a reasonably successful amateur golfer. Later, Braid set to reconditioning old clubs for his own use and developed a skill as a club maker. That enabled him to leave Scotland in 1893, to take up such a position at the Army and Navy in London. That employment led to his gaining professional status, in 1896, and in turn to his appointment as Club Professional at Romford. Braid stayed in Essex for eight years before taking moving to Walton Heath, in Surrey, where he remained until his death.
Although Braid started his career as a poor putter, he soon recovered, through single minded dedication, hours of practice and a new putter. Thereafter, he became lethal on the greens. His spectacular success began in 1901, when he won his first Open. Within ten years he had become the first man to win the event five times, a milestone he reached before either of his contemporaneous rivals, Vardon and Taylor. Braid’s record of five ‘Opens’ is only matched by Taylor, Peter Thomson and Tom Watson, although Vardon won the ‘Claret Jug’ six times. Braid retired from competitive golf in 1912, with not much left to achieve on the course, so he promptly took to designing golf courses.
Braid was a pioneer in his field and used established architectural techniques and topographical analysis. Braid realised that whilst the natural terrain was useful for certain holes, it could be radically altered to create new and more imaginative designs, based on shot strategy. Braid worked on a number of links courses, but his best courses tended to be inland parkland tracks. He is regarded as the inventor of the dogleg hole, which featured in many of his courses, however, holes of similar design had been known for centuries in Scotland. Braid found them to be ideal for inland layouts that very often wound their way through trees and around hillsides. Braid formalised the practice of positioning bunkers specifically to establish landing areas from the tee, and also developed the plateau green and the pot bunker, along with sophisticated drainage systems.
Braid’s third major claim to fame was the establishment of the Professional Golfers’ Association of which he later became President. James Braid died in London on the 27th of November, 1950, and, in reporting his death, the ‘Scotsman’ said that in his heyday, he was “an awesome figure” of a golfer.