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Book review – Divine Fury of James Braid: Professional Golf Standard Bearer

18 October, 2022
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Jim McCann

Book review – Divine Fury of James Braid: Professional Golf Standard Bearer

We publish golf book reviews occasionally and this time we’re bringing to your attention a rather weighty tome from George E. Payne, an international Senior Amateur player from Scotland who’s married to a great-granddaughter of James Braid. It’s a meticulous chronicle of Braid the man, the professional golfer and the golf course architect whose legacy lives on today with the hundreds of golf courses that he designed and remodelled during his lifetime.

The book is spread over three A4-sized volumes, totalling 1395 pages which are embellished with more than a thousand illustrations comprising photographs, anecdotes, snippets and old golf-related adverts. If you’re into records, statistics and golfing minutiae then this Braid opus is one you’ll not want to miss, even if it does come with a hefty price tag. Divine Fury was how writer Horace Hutchinson described the Braid golf swing back in the day and this book examines in great detail every little facet of the man behind it.

The author spent more than 20 years researching the information for this book, cross-referencing the facts and figures contained in Braid’s Ledger Book with book quotations, newspaper clippings and supporting material from a myriad of other publications. It’s as comprehensive an account as anybody could ever wish to read about one man’s unique contribution to the game of golf and its development during the first half of the 20th century.

Volume 1

The life of James Braid is closely scrutinised in Volume 1, starting out in the humble surroundings of Earlsferry, Fife in 1870 and ending eighty years later in a London nursing home when he sadly failed to recover from a routine appendix operation performed three weeks earlier. Along the way, we learn of his family background, his progression to work in London then his various exploits as a golf professional around the British Isles up until the start of World War II.

The author describes Braid as “reserved to the point of shyness” but “his opinion, if he could be persuaded to give it, carried immense weight and his wisdom and judgement were universally recognised”. Fond of the odd glass of port and partial to a pinch of snuff in later life, we discover he was “a grand gallery player and crowd pleaser” who didn’t travel well, hence his lack of overseas play on the other side of the Atlantic.

As an example of the many interesting anecdotes spread across the book, the author writes of Braid taking part in a fund-raising cricket match at Lord’s in 1903 when a team of Cricketing Golfers played a team of Golfing Cricketers. He managed to score seven runs during the match but his real moment of glory arrived when he was asked to bowl and he proceeded to take a wicket with his first ball bowled – underhand, full toss and at head height!

Along with his close friend J.H. Taylor, Braid was instrumental in establishing The Professional Golfers’ Association in 1901, when both men were elected Joint Treasurers, and the following year he participated in the first edition of international matches between the Scottish and English members.

In 1921 he played in an International tournament played at Gleneagles between professionals from Great Britain and the United States, which many consider as the precursor of the Ryder Cup matches which got under way six years later. Braid’s surname does not live on as he had no grandsons but his golfing legacy certainly endures and modern professional golf has a lot to thank him for.

Volume 2

Who’d have known that James Braid would play in matches with a Prime Minister (Arthur Balfour at Kilspindie in 1904); female aristocracy (the Countess of Wemyss at Craigielaw in 1906); a famous contemporary architect (Harry Colt at Stoke Poges in 1911); and with golfing great Bobby Jones at Walton Heath in 1926 and 1930?

Volume 2, running to 465 pages, provides the details for all of these games and the many hundreds of others that Braid played between 1891 at Braid Hills and 1940 at Sundridge Park (when he withdrew from an event for the only time in his playing career).

The overall statistics for these matches is truly astonishing: playing more than eighteen hundred 18-hole rounds in matches, tournaments and qualifying events in various formats (singles, foursomes, four-ball better ball and stroke play) and setting the course record at 115 of the courses he played along the way.

Braid qualified for twenty-eight of the thirty-nine Opens he entered between 1894 and 1938 (winning the championship five times) and he played in thirty-two consecutive News of the World match play tournaments, starting in 1903, winning what was at the time a very big event on the calendar four times.

And his playing record against his big rivals Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor – the other two members of the Great Triumvirate – was also impressive (55 wins, 12 draws and 49 losses against the former and 41 wins, 11 draws and 36 defeats against the latter).

Volume 3

Volume 3 extends to 661 pages so it’s by far the biggest of the three, with information on more than 550 course design projects that James Braid was involved in over 55 years, starting at his first club Romford in 1896. Over 130 golfing venues are listed for new 18-hole designs and another 80 are mentioned in relation to designing a 9-hole course or extending nine holes to an 18-hole layout.

The remainder of Braid’s commissions were made up of course appraisals, modifications, re-modelling assignments and offering general advice. Unfortunately, some of Braid’s designs never got as far as construction, while others were eventually abandoned. All too sadly, a lot of work carried out has either disappeared over time or been much altered.

Prominence is given to Braid’s best works at Gleneagles (1913-1924), Royal Aberdeen (1925-1935) and Carnoustie (1926 & 1930) in Scotland. South of the border, early designs are examined at the likes of Henley (in 1907) and Pennard (in 1908) then there’s coverage of later engagements at places such as Langland Bay in 1926 and Royal Blackheath the following year. Across the Irish Sea, Braid redesigned Bangor and reworked Mullingar among others in the mid-1930s.

This might be the most interesting section of the book for students of golf course architecture, with painstakingly researched summaries of club histories and extensive newspaper and magazine accounts – from publications such as Golf Illustrated and Nisbet Golf Year Book – bringing the provenance of all these courses to life.

Postscript

If you’ve read and liked recent golf books like Derek Markham’s A Matter of Course: The life of Herbert Fowler 1856-1941 and Keith Cutten’s The Evolution of Golf Course Design then you’ll love this one too. You will have to dig a little deeper in your pocket to enjoy it – as the book costs £250.00 plus postage, which is not an inconsiderable amount of money– but we think it’s absolutely worth paying the price for such an important contribution to golf literature.

Just a thought… if the purchase price is maybe a little beyond your means then you might consider asking your golf club to buy a copy – especially if its course is a Braid design – for general perusal of the membership. The James Braid story certainly deserves to be known by as many committed golfers as possible and it would be a real pity if the cost of acquiring this colossal undertaking hindered the telling of the tale to as wide an audience as possible.

The book is available from YPD Books. Click this link to go to the order page.

Jim McCann

Editor

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