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Favorite Golf Course Designers: James Braid

By: Tony Dear


Editor's Note: Over the course of the next 12 months Cybergolf correspondent Tony Dear will list his favorite course designers and explain why he rates them so highly. First up: James Braid.

James Braid (Courtesy of
James Braid Society)

Every golfer alive has his/her own favorite golf course. Often times we can't specify exactly why a particular layout is our absolute favorite, however. Something about it just makes it uniquely special in a way other courses will never be, could never be, no matter how highly it is rated by others, or how aggressively it's marketed.

Every golfer alive has his/her own favorite golf course. Often times we can't specify exactly why a particular layout is our absolute favorite, however. Something about it just makes it uniquely special in a way other courses will never be, could never be, no matter how highly it is rated by others, or how aggressively it's marketed.

Ratings and reviews in various golf publications and even advertisements can compel us almost to think highly of a course even though we might never have made a connection with it. We just don't see what others apparently do. There's a course perpetually rated in the top 10 in the world which I have always regarded as insanely overrated. Yes, it's located in a very special place and possesses three or four of the world's most magnificent holes. It has a grand history. It's easy to see why it's revered, in fact. But I think too much of it is too bland for it to justify its place among the world's very best.

As for choosing your favorite golf course architect, it seems logical to pick the man (apart from a couple of members of the Dye family - Alice, Cynthia - not too many females have made a name for themselves designing golf courses) who created your favorite course. But then what if he built the course you regard as your favorite plus a bunch of goat tracks you really don't care for? And what if you've only played one or two courses by a certain designer but enjoyed them very much? Is that enough for that man to make it onto your list?

The 12 that will be featured this year aren't in any sort of order, but are the 12 I thought of first when asked to name my favorite dozen. It's important to distinguish between the best architects and one's own favorites. Attempting to identify who the best architect might be is futile of course, but you can state your favorite without fear of being wrong.

As usual, there will be those who nod in agreement as they read each of the articles and think me a man of impeccable taste. But there will also be those who think I'd be well-served having a lobotomy, if indeed I haven't had one already (how many lobotomies can you have?)

Some well-known architects will be conspicuous by their absence. There's no room for present-day designers like Nicklaus, Fazio, Trent Jones or Palmer. There's no Weiskopf, Norman or Faldo. Many will forgive these omissions, but wonder (if they're still reading in December) what on Earth happened to MacDonald, Raynor, Thomas, Ross or Tillinghast.

Truth is, the Golden Age architects built a lot of courses that belong to very exclusive clubs and which only the privileged few and their few very privileged guests will ever play. How for instance can anyone say Tillinghast is one of their favorite designers if the closest they get to one of his courses is watching the U.S. Open? Yes, "Tillie" and Ross both built a few courses that are open to the public, almost entirely in the eastern half of the country, but I've never had the pleasure so am not really in a position to count them among my favorites.

As is the case it seems with many people who have reached a certain age and played the game for a number of years, I tend to favor architects who didn't necessarily have huge budgets at their disposal but rather those who relied on whatever natural landforms they were given and their imagination and skill in incorporating them appropriately into their layout. Though recognizing there is tremendous talent and incredible vision at work in creating something as memorable as Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, Nev., or Trump National in Palo Alto, Calif., I'm less inclined to include architects who used the limitless budgets given them by wealthy developers to build holes they might even have started planning before even setting foot on the site. You know who they are - architects who took advantage of explosives, heavy machinery and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and foisted on to virgin land what the developer demanded in an effort to attract attention and help sell lots, producing a largely predictable course with all the charm, soul and unexpected quirks of a Motel 6.

Instead, my favorite architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, blessed actually by the absence of bulldozers, CAD and all the rest of it, allowed what confronted them to suggest the routing and character of the holes. I don't suppose they really had much of a choice, but still, the best holes still needed to be found.

This is where James Braid comes in, for the Scot excelled at charm, soul and the occasional quirk. The 200 or so courses he worked on positively exude charm, the vast majority of them the sort that might not excite you at first (standard-size greens with only minor undulations, no flashy bunkers, no superfluous water hazards) but which have stood the test of almost 100 years of change, and lure you back again and again in the belief, often mistakenly, that you can easily beat your handicap.

This quote, taken from Braid's book "Advanced Golf" first published in 1902, really says it all: "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 in 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."

Born in Earlsferry, Fife, in 1870, Braid was first and foremost a champion golfer, the winner of five Open Championships between 1901 and 1910. He began in the course-design business in the early 1900s working on small projects for clubs who wanted the name of the Open champion associated with their course.

One of his first original designs was the wonderful North Hants GC in Fleet, a layout subsequently modernized by both Harry Colt and Tom Simpson who lengthened the course in response to the distances the new Haskell ball was flying. It's not clear if the club preferred to use the Englishmen because they considered Braid's layout somehow defective, or if Braid had simply turned the club down on account of the acute travel sickness he would suffer on even the shortest of car trips. The story goes that while working on a remodel of Parkstone, a superb heathland track in Dorset, England, Braid would be sick two or three times during the mile-long journey to the course from the train station.

A question mark also hangs over Braid's distinct style or if, indeed, he even had one. Adam Lawrence, editor of "Golf Course Architecture," says it's difficult to define exactly what the Scot's philosophy was. "I think Braid is difficult to tie down," he says. "So much of his work was renovation rather than new-build so it isn't easy to be sure exactly what he did or didn't do on a particular course. He is, in some ways, a bit of a throwback - he was less 'scientific' than Colt or, (Alister) MacKenzie. I don't think he moved much earth, for example, and thus his best work tends to be on sites with more natural features. I'm not trying to demean his work; he built very good holes and courses. Perhaps throwback is the wrong word; although he was part of the strategic school."

Braid's own words confirm Lawrence's assertion. In "Advanced Golf," he wrote: "There should as frequently as possible be at least two alternative methods of playing the hole - an easy one and a difficult one - and there should be a chance of gaining a stroke when the latter is chosen."

Holes fitting this description abound at many of his most famous remodels - Brora, Berkhamstead, Troon, Prestwick, Carnoustie, Ballybunion, Aberdovey and Royal Birkdale's next-door neighbor, Southport & Ainsdale, which English architect Martin Ebert is currently remodeling with partner Tom Mackenzie. "We have had the good fortune to work on some of Braid's courses or those he redesigned," says Ebert. "S&A plays over some wonderful terrain and the routing makes excellent use of the dunes. Overall, Braid's work was in the classic mold; he used land so well, producing strong courses that worked with the contours rather than against them."

But while his routings and use of landforms have gained almost universal praise, Braid's putting surfaces never quite got the same recognition. Possessing one or two uniform borrows rather than the mass of undulations and extreme breaks common on more modern courses, Braid's greens might be considered a little bland by today's standards, especially by golfers familiar with the David McLay Kidd's Huntsman Springs or Castle Course in St. Andrews, Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Chambers Bay or Tom Doak's magnificent Pacific Dunes.

At Carnoustie and S&A, Ebert has been hired with a view to make putting a little more challenging. "At both courses, the greens are not quite as interesting as they perhaps should be, given the natural shapes of the linksland," he says. "In fact, the project we are working on at S&A is to redesign all of the greens over a 10-year period - improve their condition and give them more interest."

Ebert wonders if Braid's greens ended up a little on the tame side as a result of his reluctance to travel. "The reports are that Braid's plans were extremely detailed," he says. "But their implementation would have depended upon the men charged with construction if Braid himself did not make regular site visits." Without Braid there supervising, Ebert thinks his plans were liable to be misinterpreted.

Although there is always an exception to the rule - the splendid St. Enodoc in Cornwall, England, has what Ebert describes as "some wonderfully-shaped greens and surrounds," even the course most synonymous with Braid the architect - the King's Course at Gleneagles in Scotland, where he began work alongside Major C.K. Hutchison in 1914, two years after retiring from tournament golf - has greens that some might call nondescript.

Flat greens or not, it is a pity that his kinetosis, World War I, the Great Depression and devotion to his job as club professional at Walton Heath in Surrey all combined to limit Braid's design career. He never traveled to the U.S., and much of his work in the UK saw him arrive at a course in the morning, take a brief tour, return home on the evening train, and later send his notes and sketches in the mail.

When the opportunity to build 18 holes from scratch did arise, however, Braid very rarely failed to produce a course of note. In his book "James Braid," Bernard Darwin wrote that while he may not have been terribly imaginative at times, Braid did possess what every architect needs - "a good eye for country, a temperate judgment, and a fund of plain common sense."

For more information about James Braid, visit www.thebraidsociety.com.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.