Architect Howard Swan, who has worked on many of Braid's courses, describes the life, work and legacy of the Scottish member of the Great Triumvirate.
I am fortunate to be able to tell this tale. James Braid was a remarkable man, a remarkable achiever in many facets of the great game, a remarkable player and a remarkable architect.
Born in the Kingdom of Fife, in 1870, his early life centred on the links at Elie and it was there that he learned his golf.
At the earliest of ages he was mightily proficient by all accounts.
His training, and then job, as a carpenter and joiner in the home of golf gave some sustenance to his impoverished family, but also gave him the chance to turn his increasingly skilled hands to club making and repairing – firstly his own, then others – and to playing.
This pursuit took him south from his native Scotland, to London, at no less than the Army and Navy department store to make clubs. Has this ever been done since I wonder? And he played as much as he could in the capital, because golf was his game.
His game was excellent as an amateur and soon the attraction of a permanent paying position beckoned and he moved, at the relatively tender age of 26, to the north eastern outskirts of London, to Romford Golf Club in Essex, as the professional. So began a career which few have paralleled.
Only two years later he narrowly lost The Open but three years on he became champion at Muirfield, one of Old Tom's best creations, he contended, a feat he repeated four years later on The Old Course. He returned to East Lothian's classic links to retain his title the year after. It was only a further two more years before it was his again, this time at Prestwick. He climaxed this remarkable decade by taking his fifth title at St Andrews four years before the Great War.
Five world championships in less than ten years – a remarkable achievement.
Perhaps the Nicklaus's and the Woods' of our modern world would doff their caps to the man. In these earliest years of the 20th century he, with his fellow professionals, John Henry Taylor and Harry Vardon, dominated the game, and so the Great Triumvirate was born. We revere them greatly today as wonderful exponents of the game, and to no less degree as exponents of our profession of golf course architecture.
Braid's playing successes brought his fame, if not fortune, and he strived at every opportunity to improve the game, to move it up and on, and his place in it.
His founding of and his presiding over the Professional Golfers' Association in its earliest of days many in the game today should remember with great gratitude.
In the midst of his Open successes, he left Romford to move south of the river, to the heathland of Surrey and to a new course designed by Herbert Fowler at Walton Heath. He remained with the club for a further forty odd years until his death in 1950.
In the midst of his Open successes, and his domination on the course he found time to put pen to paper in exploring his thoughts on the game, its playing, its stroking, and for me most interestingly, its design. Advanced Golf, first published in 1902, is a book any golf course architect – interested in where his profession came from, what the greats thought, conspired and practised – should not fail to have on the shelves of his library.
Braid dedicated two chapters of this wonderful book to golf course design – The Planning of Course, and The Character and Placing of Teeing Grounds, Bunkers and Putting Greens – and fascinating reading they make for me and I hope my professional colleagues.
He wrote: "It is both necessary and desirable that the holes should be laid out as suggested by the lie of the land, every natural obstacle being taken care of." "There should be a complete variety of holes…not just length, but in their character – the way in which they are bunkered…the kind of shot that is required…the kind of approach and so forth." The greens should be well guarded.
"The shorter the hole, the smaller the green, the more closely guarded." And no less importantly: "The bunkering and general planning should be carried out with the specific object of making it necessary not only to get a certain length, but more particularly to gain a desired position…and the player who does not gain his position should have his next shot made more difficult." "There should as frequently as possible be (at least) two possible alternative methods of playing the hole – an easy one, a difficult one – and there should be a chance of gaining a stroke when the latter is chosen." With thoughts like this, perhaps revolutionary at such a time, I wonder how Simpson could have considered Braid as part of the Dark Ages of golf course architecture! I wonder also just how original some of MacKenzie's words in Golf Architecture, published some twenty years later, were? In those classic chapters, Braid continued: "The last two or three holes should be of good length in order to induce a good finish." "At the long holes, the bunkering should not be too severe." "In the case of the shortest of the short holes I would have no cross bunkering, but bunkers all around it." "There should be the greatest variety – length, height, direction – in the short holes." Food for all of us to taste, chew, digest, I might suggest.
Some contend Mr Braid was guilty of over-penal bunkering, being too tough on the player. But he was not that kind of man, I believe. He was a strategist, in his play, in his designs. "Long bunkers right in front of a green are not a good form of hazard," he propounded.
"Bunkers are not placed on a course haphazard but they are made in particular places to catch…defective shots." "Whilst every assistance should be given to the bunker to enable it to catch its own kind of shot…and the player punished by having to play out of it…generally there should be a fair chance of playing forward." Considered, fair, reasonable – and only intimidatingly punishing, I might say.
James Braid was prolific in his architectural work as he stepped out of the playing limelight as an undisputed champion. At a time with no planes, just some trains, boats and Shanks' Pony, travelling as he did, designing so much in so many places was a truly remarkable achievement. Especially since he was constantly nauseous on the sea! Wonderful golf courses such as Aberdovey, Carnoustie, Southport and Ainsdale, Berkhamsted, Mere, North Hants, Goodwood and of course his beloved Gleneagles – Kings, Queens and Braid's Brawest – who could forget? Truly remarkable.
He might have done it – he only could have done it – by fleetingly being at a piece of land, by fleetingly being at a course he was asked to change, add to, improve – by Geoffrey Cornish's "eighteen stakes on a Sunday afternoon" method. But he did it, and how impressively! Gleneagles, of course, is different and special. Enough for his clients, to want the product to be known as having him as the architect.
He was best regarded by many of his colleagues: "There could not have been a cooler or better tempered golfer...a prince of sportsmen...This tall, stooping old Scot is one of the wonders of the golfing world." They wrote: "He had a great eye for a golf hole and will cross a tract of virgin land and plot out golf holes as well as any man. He has been a successful golf architect and many of his courses are not rubber stamped – they are original." James Braid was indeed a remarkable man and a remarkable achiever, a fine player and as a fine architect. He had a concern about his game, and about its future. So what changes? In his book An Essential Distinction, Braid said: "The traditions and values that over the centuries have set golf apart from other sports as the game of higher principal and personal integrity have never been exposed to so much challenge as they are in today's cynically commercial world. Indeed the danger of this most noble of all games being hijacked by some forces who appreciate little if anything of its history and customs, and what's worse, care even less, is a cause for not a little worry.
"Perhaps it is not altogether their fault. The rush of new recruits to the game fuelled in some part at least by those upwardly mobile ambitions that so characterised the 1980s was hardly matched by a golf establishment ready, willing or even able to integrate them into the slightly arcane world where a simple game of club and ball is in fact so much more than just that.
"With little in the way of guidance, is it any wonder that some, who bypassed the traditional upbringing of golf club or organised golf society now treat the game as a fashion accessory? In the rampant materialism of the present day should we really wonder why desire among some to join a golf club is seen in the same light as the acquisition of the latest flavour of the month, foreign motor car? The real values of this royal and ancient pastime that has infuriated mankind for five hundred years are sadly now passing too many by."
We have much to be grateful for in the legacy he left us.
Howard Swan is a golf architect based in Essex, England. This article first appeared in issue 7 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2007.