James Braid – Walton Heath

This is part of a series of articles on the golfing life of five times British Open Champion James Braid. Braid is a golf legend. Only Harry Vardon has won more British Open titles.

In the last four articles I’ve written about Braid’s early life, golfing achievements and course design work. In this final instalment I will focus on his time at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, and finish off with a few amusing anecdotes.

Braid was the pro at Romford when enquiring in the winter of 1903/1904 if his services might be of interest to Walton Heath. He was already and Open Champion, and had just won the News of the World Matchplay, a tournament which at that time ranked second only to the Open Championship. He was the hottest property in golf. He had visited the heath to see for himself in October 1903. Braid felt the embryo layout closer in character to a Scottish links than that he had seen anywhere inland before.

It was here that he spent 46 years. Braid’s initial contract was for seven years from 1st May 1904. His salary was £100 per annum. He could also charge and retain five shillings per hour for lessons, and three shillings and six pence for playing with members. Braid was allowed away from the club for 90 days a year, but for no more than a week at a time, except for championships. Even then under such circumstances he had to pay for a deputy.

By a term of his contract the club had to provide him with working premises of at least 36 feet by 15 feet. This was to encompass a workshop, office and showroom. He must have been a very fair employer, as two of his clubmakers stayed with him for 50 years. Braid’s clubs were expensive when compared to other outlets, but a Walton Heath member would never stoop to such a false economy! Today Braid’s premises are a caddy shed.

With him came his wife Minnie Alice and their sons. Five year old James Junior and three year old Harry Muirfield Braid, so named after his first open win at the course. Both his sons played golf. Their home in Meadow Walk, Walton-on-the Hill would be named Earlsferry, which he believed to be his place of birth. It was later discovered however that the cottage in Liberty Place where Braid was born was, by less than a stroke with a sand wedge, in Elie.

Walton Heath golf club and course was formally opened on 14th May 1904. A match took place to mark this occasion between The Great Triumvrate. Braid opposed Vardon and Taylor over 36 holes of match-play. The audience arrived by train and carriage, and in fast new cars which travelled at close to 20 miles per hour. Amongst the gathering throng were knights, lords and parliamentarians. There were generals and admirals too. Braid lost by three holes to Vardon, and six to Taylor. This was the one disappointment of a wondrous society day.

In 1904 the all round aspect of the course was open heathland. There was barely a tree to be seen. A century hence there are many trees at Walton Heath.

Mr Braid, as every respectful Walton Heath member called him, was a shrewd teacher and skilful clubmaker. Whilst it was still common that club professionals also carry out the duties of a greenkeeper, Walton Heath could not ask an Open Champion to do such a thing. Consider the indignity!

However, Braid did have to advise the course managing director and chief architect William Fowler on course management and improvement. This was a challenging task considering both men were proud and stubborn about their ideas. Whilst they had mutual respect it is not until 1935 that there is any substantial evidence of major involvement from Braid in changes to the course.

Braid described the Walton Heath layout as the fastest running inland course in the country. Another likeness to the Scottish links courses of which he was so fond. The literally outward and then inward nines are very reminiscent of the Old course at St Andrews. The bunkers are steep burial grounds indeed. Even Braid confessed to their severity for the majority of players. The rough and untrammelled heather of the time did wonders for the sale of Braid’s two shilling balls!

He was outwardly serious, yet with an underlay of dry humour. Braid was a decent and modest man. His Scottish accent had survived the move south. He was full of common sense and gentle wisdom. When asked for an opinion Braid’s reply would be frank and forthright.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, 6th Feb 1950, Braid ventured out to face the cameras wrapped up in Mackintosh jackets on the first tee. The wind was so strong he had no hope of carrying the cross bunker in two on the final hole that day at Walton Heath. His third was ensnared by the greenside bunker. He scored an 81. In November of that year he required an operation. Subsequently there was a setback. Braid died on 27th November, and is buried at St Peter’s Church at Walton-on-the-Hill.

All the desires that Braid expressed be enacted upon his passing were carried out including the giving back to the R&A of the medal he was given upon his victory in the Jubilee Open of 1910.

A plaque was subsequently placed in honour of Braid on the door of Earlsferry town hall.

In an article in The Strand magazine in 1914, Braid talks of many odd incidents in the game.

Playing at Romford once during his backswing a player’s gutty ball flew into Braid’s shaft and split it!

Playing in an Edinburgh tournament he got into a whin bush. Braid hit his escape too cleanly, struck a spectator twenty yards beyond the hole, and rebounded to within five yards of the pin!

He was once playing against the better ball of two players conceding a stroke a hole. They had the honour, and one of them holed her tee shot!

Whilst playing the fifteenth at Walton Heath, Braid recorded his record drive of 396 yards! However, he does confess that the ground was frozen and it was blowing a hurricane. On another occasion his opponent threatened to twist his neck if he holed out from some cart ruts at the third hole. He promptly did so, but the opponent failed to carry out his threat!

In a foursome at Walton Heath one of Braid and his partner’s opponents was a famous professional. The professional’s partner had struck the ball into a bush. Unwilling to lose the hole, the professional asked his partner if he had a club he did not mind getting broken. Upon being handed the said club he successfully played the stroke and broke the club!

I hope you have enjoyed this detailed look at Braid’s career over the series, and look forward to writing more about golf’s history makers in the months to come.

© Fraser Paterson

Pictures and research courtesy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Walton Heath Golf Club, Surrey, England, James Braid by Bernard Darwin, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1952 and Mr Baird of Aberlady, Scotland

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