- Top 100
- James Braid
James Braid was born in 1870 to James Braid (a farm worker) and his wife Mary (née Harris) who was an accomplished weaver. His father had two other children from an earlier marriage of which he had been widowed. James came into the world at Liberty Place, between Earlsferry and Elie, but the family later moved to a small weaver’s cottage at 36 High Street, Earlsferry.
James attended Williamsburgh primary school and caddied at the local links, where he learned how to play the game. Entering a junior caddies competition aged eight, he won the event with many strokes to spare. A year later, he saw every shot played by Champion Golfer Jamie Anderson who was playing in a Professionals v Amateurs match on the Elie course.
Braid finished his schooling aged 13 and became an apprentice joiner, walking three miles to and from his place of work six days a week. Two years later, he had enough money to pay his entry fee and annual subscription as a member of Earlsferry Thistle, the artisan club attached to the Elie golf course, and he won the second medal he contested on what was then still an 11-hole layout.
Braid moved to St Andrews in 1889, playing in matches against Andrew Kirkcaldy and his brother Hugh, then moved to Edinburgh two years later, joining the Edinburgh Thistle Club which played on the Braids municipal moorland course overlooking the capital. He spent another two years working there before heading south of the border.
His cousin Charles Smith, the foreman clubmaker at the Army and Navy Stores in London had notified Braid of a vacancy that had arisen. So, although Braid had never made a club in his life and knew nothing about the process, he set off for the Big Smoke with at least an understanding of how to work with wood and tools.
From late 1893 until the summer of 1896, Braid’s time away from his London day job saw him practice at a number of clubs, including Chiswick, Sudbrook Park and Mid-Surrey. He also assisted at Hastings in 1895 before becoming the fulltime professional at Romford a year later.
Braid laid out the course at nearby Theydon Bois in 1898, receiving £4.13s.6d for his efforts. It was a 9-hole affair (which Fred W. Hawtree extended to eighteen holes in 1971), most of which is still intact. It would be the first of many courses he’d design but his professional playing career was also in full swing.
Three years after winning his first Open in 1901, Braid moved to Walton Heath and he would remain Head Professional there until his death forty-six years later. The club’s two courses are the work of Herbert Fowler and the canny Scotsman knew better than to tinker with layouts generally accepted as being among the best in the British Isles.
Instead, he concentrated on winning the Open again and by the end of the decade, he would be crowned Champion Golfer of the Year and hold aloft the Claret Jug a further four times; twice at St Andrews in 1905 and 1910, at Muirfield (again) in 1906 and at Prestwick in 1908.
Braid had a remarkable playing record in The Open, entering every championship between 1896 and 1938. All told, he took part in 39 events (38 consecutively) with an astonishing nineteen Top 10 finishes.
His record in the News of the World match play was also very impressive, competing in 32 consecutive tournaments from 1903 to 1939 (winning four times and finishing runner-up twice).
It’s reckoned that Braid played more than 1800 rounds of 18-hole golf during his playing career in matches, tournaments and qualifying events and his record stands up well against the other two members of the Great Triumvirate – versus Harry Vardon it’s 55 won, 12 drawn, 49 lost and against J.H. Taylor it’s 41 won, 11 drawn, 36 lost.
Braid’s contract at Walton Heath allowed him to be away from the club for up to ninety days during a year so, when he was not competing in tournaments, he was able to travel the length and breadth of the country designing new courses or modifying and advising on existing layouts.
During his career, it’s reckoned Braid designed more than a hundred 9-hole and 18-hole courses. He also extended more than fifty 9-holers to 18-hole layouts and he either reconstructed or altered over two hundred courses in some way or another, even if just advising on new bunker schemes.
Braid rarely travelled abroad – he was apparently affected badly by motion sickness – so his foreign designs are limited to around a dozen in total in N. Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man. He ventured occasionally to play on the continent of Europe, winning the French Open at La Boulie in 1910.
Braid used Paisley contractor John R. Stutt for construction work on at least fifty of his projects over a time span of more than quarter of a century and it was his trusted friend Stutt who completed his last course at Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway, shortly after he died in 1950.
In the book James Braid and his Four Hundred Golf Courses, authors John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming had this to say in their epilogue: “Braid’s courses seem to stand the test of time better than most… [his] work will never become obsolete: it has actually become ‘required reading’ for today’s trainee architects who, it is to be hoped, will remember the values which Braid established.”
Kevin Kenny ended an essay entitled ‘The design work of James Braid in Ireland’ in the book Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective (Volume Six) with this:
“When summing up Braid’s work in Ireland, two things stand out: firstly, the simple but effective practice of adding trees and bunkers to provide definition to the courses under his care; and, secondly, and of greatest significance, the efficient and distinctly non-fussy manner in which he went about his work.
J.R. Stutt, who did most, if not all, of the construction work on Braid’s Irish designs, confirmed that ‘his plans were always crystal clear and definite; and it was exceptional indeed for even minor alterations to be made during the carrying out of his work’.
Similarly, when assessing his qualities as a golf course architect, Bernard Darwin, his friend and biographer, declared that Braid had a ‘good eye for country, a temperate judgement and a fund of plain common sense.’
These qualities were seen to great effect wherever he worked in Ireland. Invariably, this involved short visits, followed by a succinct letter or plan of his suggestions. And Braid’s willingness to utilise nature, as much as sensibly possible, was a constant hallmark.
Today, in an era of large golf design teams utilising earth-moving technology, and firms who introduce artificial water hazards, it is worth remembering that one of the game’s true and lasting giants found such economical ways to create courses. These have been challenging and enjoyable to play. Furthermore, they have endured the test of time.”
Author George E. Payne’s brilliant three-volume book Divine Fury of James Braid: Professional Golf Standard Bearer pays tribute to James Braid, the man, as illustrated in the following edited extract:
“James Braid was a friend of king and road sweeper alike who never moved a step to seek popularity and yet attained it in rich measure. He refused to have a telephone at home saying if he had one he would never get any peace. Never possessing a car, Braid travelled everywhere by train and was said to know the train timetables to golf venues off by heart.
Over his 80-year lifespan Braid was seldom seriously ill unlike his great friend and rival Harry Vardon. His eyes were his most frequent problem (resulting) from an accident during his time as a joiner in his teens, when he accidentally got lime in his eyes, leaving him almost blind in his left eye.
Vardon, J.H. Taylor and Braid were all relatively abstemious, but all enjoyed a drink. Braid’s favourite tipple was a glass of port. Early in his career Braid was said to be a smoker but by 1911 it was recorded that ‘he never smokes’. In later life he was said to be partial to a pinch of snuff.
Braid was a grand gallery player and crowd pleaser. Wherever he went, if he failed to break the course record, he would certainly hit some record drives, carries and cleek shots, the like of which had never been seen on the course before. This made him a more interesting player to follow than those who played a more methodical steady game without serious risk taking.
Braid habitually went for the big shot if there was any chance of achieving it. They say he was never happier than when playing from deep rough. No rough was too dense for his excavations and no carry too intimidating for his courage. He found the clubs of his day inadequate for getting out of heavy rough and invented the great big niblick.
Braid maintained a Ledger Book in which he kept details of his non-Walton Heath professional’s trading between 1919-20 and 1939-40. Braid’s income after expenses was an average £302-15-5 per annum. The ledger also contains names of greenkeepers who were seeking employment and quotations from clubmakers and tree surgeons.
Braid, though by nature reserved to the point of shyness, was a man of great character. His opinion, if he could be persuaded to give it, carried immense weight and his wisdom and judgement were universally recognised. He had a truly Scottish pawky sense of humour and retained every national characteristic of a Scot, even his accent went unchanged despite the long time he lived in England.
Braid entered hospital in November 1950 for what seemed a routine appendix operation, but sadly he failed to recover from the trauma thereof and passed away, in the presence of his sons, some three weeks later in a nursing home on 27th November. James had the good fortune to lead a full life up to the very end, a happy warrior still in harness.”
Harry Vardon wrote in 1912: “I enjoy nothing more than the sight of Braid getting out of the rough. The best – worst – of Braid in the rough is that it generally means no punishment at all for him. It is a real treat to watch him playing a shot in an extremely difficult position. He has no equal at it. The only place in which he is beaten is the place in which he has no room to swing his club. Give him just enough space to raise the implement and he will recover from anything. The trouble may be gorse or rank grass, or rocks or a railway track; as he takes the club up you know something will have to go, and that the ball will go with it.”
Bernard Darwin wrote in 1934: “As regards golfers, nobody could look so wise as James Braid is. There is nobody whose every word and action is so redolent of sagacity. One thinks of him first and foremost as a man of extraordinary cool, wise judgement. Certainly, no man ever played golf with a wiser head. He was a superb iron player, a master of very kind of running shot and though not a naturally good putter he made himself for one period of his career almost a great one. A better player out of difficulties I am sure was never seen, he was as skilful and resourceful as he was strong.”
J.H. Taylor wrote in 1943: “James had tacked on to him the reputation of a bad putter. This may have been justified when in the early days he was gathering the threads of his game together and showed weakness when it was a matter of knocking the ball into the hole from short distance, a weakness that afflicts all. This supposed weakness is more than compensated by the exactitude of the long run-up approach putts. As a diviner of the true line to the hole there is no superior – I have yet to meet the player who could hole the ten-yard putt with greater regularity.”
Henry Cotton wrote in 1948: “This tall, stooping, ruddy-complexioned old Scot is one of the wonders of the golfing world. Jimmy, besides being a great golfer from a technical point of view, is the possessor of a wonderful temperament; he learned never to show any emotion in his golf, and in addition is a man of very few words. He has 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 his many golf courses are not rubber stamped; they are original.”
Advanced Golf by James Braid (1908)
Golf Guide and How to Play Golf (1912)
James Braid by Bernard Darwin (1952)
James Braid and His Four Hundred Golf Courses by John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming (2013)
Divine Fury of James Braid: Professional Golf Standard Bearer by George E. Payne (2021)