James Braid – His Lasting Legacy
James Braid was born in the village of Earlsferry, next to Elie in Fife in 1870. Golf was already established and played widely, though his parents were non-golfers. Early time spent as a caddie led to him learning to play, and as young as 8 he won a junior caddies’ competition. By 16 he was a scratch golfer and had joined Earlsferry Thistle GC. The Thistle was a hot-bed of good young golfers, including his cousin Douglas Rolland (runner-up in the 1884 and 1894 Open Championships) and the Simpson brothers; Jack (Open Champion 1884), Archie (Runner up Open Championship in 1885 and 1890) and Bob, a club maker and future head professional at Carnoustie. At the age of 9, Braid came to the notice of Jamie Anderson (a 3-times Open Champion) who encouraged him to believe he could go on to the top of the game.
Developing as a player
In 1889, the 19-year old Braid started work as a joiner in St Andrews, followed by a move to Edinburgh in 1891. By now he was playing off plus 2, winning local tournaments and breaking course records. A chance encounter in 1893 with his friend Charles Smith, who offered him better money in London, led to James moving south to become a clubmaker at the Army and Navy Stores. This marked his formal transition to the professional ranks. Opportunities arose to play weekend golf in the London area, and he linked up again with his old friend Douglas Rolland, now the professional at Limpsfield GC.
The Open Years
In 1894, Braid played his first Open, hosted for the first time by the Royal St George’s golf club at Sandwich. A finish of 10th behind the winner J H Taylor was a fair debut, but Braid turned out to be a steady, rather than spectacular, developer at the Opens of the 1890s. A second place at Hoylake in 1897 was matched by disappointments, though still top ten finishes, at Muirfield, Sandwich and St Andrews golf clubs. However, as the new century began, all that was about to change.
Harry Vardon and J H Taylor won 6 Opens in the 7 years to 1900. But in 1901 at Muirfield, Braid beat both of them for the first of his 5 Open titles. His great asset was his enormous length, enabling him to reach long holes which others could not. He was essentially a measured, strategic player, but also given to a sudden, startling killer blow. Allied to a fierce determination, he had made himself into a formidable competitor who was now in his prime. He had even overcome his weakness in putting by moving to an aluminium mallet head and by sheer hard work in practice.
His record in these Opens from 1901 to 1910 was unmatched – 5 wins (all in Scotland, to his pleasure and amusement) plus 3 runners-up and 2 fifth places. He had truly arrived as a fully-fledged member of the Great Triumvirate, along with Vardon and Taylor. In the 20 years before WW1, the trio took 16 Open titles between them, Vardon just edging the others with 6. Along the way, Braid won 4 Match-play Championships and the French Open. Being a poor traveller, he never visited the US; there is little doubt that if he had, his tally of major championship wins would have been higher.
With five competition years lost to WW1, Braid’s playing achievements gradually tailed off – though he was still capable of occasional excellence even in his 50s. The sparkle wasn’t quite there on a consistent basis anymore. However, such was the respect and admiration with which he was held by his peers and the wider public, he was the first President of the new Professional Golfers Association, founded immediately after WW1.
Life from this point on centred on his role as Head Professional at Walton Heath, one of the outstanding clubs on the Surrey Heathlands. He was there from 1904 to his death in 1950, teaching and club-making but also turning his skills and experience to a new area of interest – course design.
James Braid first ventured into course design in his late 20s and amazingly, some of his top-class work was done while he was in his Open-winning prime. Among these were Tenby, North Hants, Henley, St Enodoc and Lundin.
The roll-call of Braid’s course designs – originals or extensions/revisions – reads like a list of some of the greatest courses in the UK, plus a number of ‘village gems’, perhaps less prestigious, but delightful to play for golfers of any standard. His outstanding designs at Gleneagles (King’s and Queen’s), Carnoustie, Royal Musselburgh, Brora, Fortrose and Rosemarkie, Hankley Common and Royal Troon have all stood the test of time. They amount to a legacy the equal of any golfing architect from his day to the present.
Braid was a ‘thinking’ golfer’s course designer. He could visualise how a hole could be created from the natural lie of the land. His bunkering tested the slightly wayward shot, not those of a novice. He thought deeply about variety, wind direction, turf condition, green size, tee positions and he sought to give pleasure and challenge to all golfers. For these reasons the basic layouts of Braid’s courses are often intact today, merely enhanced or modified for modern equipment and tastes. He was still designing as he reached his 80th birthday, which was to be his last.
A Man of Character
The appeal of James Braid is diverse and impressive. Quite apart from his obvious golfing achievements and course design legacy, he deserves to be recognised for his personal attributes which enhanced everything he did.
His biographer, Bernard Darwin, highlighted the way that ‘the conduct of Braid (as well as Vardon and Taylor) raised the standing and reputation of professional golfers from the lowly levels of the 1800s. He was always dignified and respectful, he refused to allow his success to go to his head; and he demonstrated good natural manners on and off the course. All of this inspired affection for James, especially in later years, but it was never sought’.
There were so many facets to his character. His approach to golf was committed, determined and straightforward. Although blessed with talent, he analysed his game and worked out that he needed to be longer off the tee, and to hole more putts. So, his prescription was hours of practice in these areas. Taylor noticed the difference in his putting in particular, as Braid hit his prime between 1901 and 1910.
James Braid was a man of few words, and he hated making speeches, due to his innate modesty. So when words came, people listened, as they were also full of wisdom. This was recognised at a high level, by the PGA and the R & A, in honouring him. But at a personal level those he taught at Walton Heath would always take away a single helpful nugget, expressed in kindly and encouraging tones.
Henry Cotton also came to know him well and summed it up, ‘Everyone who knew James recognised in him the lovable qualities of modesty, dignity, reticence, wisdom and a deep kindliness’.
James Braid thrilled people with his golf and left a wonderful legacy of values and traditions for others to follow. He personified all that is good and distinctive about golf.
On his tombstone, the epitaph reads: ‘He had many opponents but no enemies’.