Off The Beaten Track
Walking in the footsteps of Braid at Brora
For the true links explorer, nothing beats a trip to Brora, writes Ed Hodge.
There is something magical, something satisfying about heading off the well beaten track in Scottish golf. St Andrews, Kingsbarns, Carnoustie, Turnberry and Troon may be familiar bucket-list destinations to tick off on a visit to the country that brought the game to the world, but going out of bounds, so to speak, and off the familiar fairways is surely a must for any visitor to Scotland.
Brora is one such experience. The most northerly golf memorial to James Braid in his native land, here is a breath-taking venue full of history and charm and one of the UK's iconic links courses.
A tour of the Highlands of Scotland, where Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch are well known, is not over without a trip to Brora, complete with its roaming sheep, cattle and electric-fenced greens. Part of the 'Magnificent Seven' golf clubs that form The James Braid Highland Golf Trail, starting at Boat of Garten in the south to Reay in the far north, Brora is only an hour from Inverness by car. Driving along the idyllic A9 and taking in its sights and sounds, you are immediately struck by the magic of Brora by the moment you pull into the car park.
Amid delightful dunes, humps and hollows you are offered a vista to take the breath away. The welcoming clubhouse offers the majestic sea frontage, before the links offers a truly awe inspiring and authentic golf experience. Standing on the second tee, with the panorama of seascape and landscape, it is simply unique in golfing terms.
"James Braid had the vision to create something of great beauty," says former Ryder Cup player Ronan Rafferty, a great lover of Brora along with the likes of two-time Major champion Sandy Lyle. "For the connoisseur, Brora is well worth the journey."
Still accessible by rail to a town of approximately 1,200 inhabitants, you can almost picture Braid steaming north to the 194-acre venue in 1923. While the course was founded in 1891, it was the re-design undertaken by the famed Scot that continues to stand the test of time.
For the Fifer from the village of Earlsferry, who honed his game on the Elie Links, he is one of golf's most prolific designers. The five-time Open champion was one of the dominant 'Great Triumvirate' of the sport alongside Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor – indeed Braid's 1906 victory in The Open was the last successful defence of the title by a European until Padraig Harrington replicated the feat in 2008 – but his fear of flying and motion sickness on ocean travel meant he never contested a golf event in America, or even worked on a course in the US. A train journey north was typical of his lifestyle.
"He travelled by train anywhere," recalls his granddaughter Marjorie Mackie. "He was also a quick architect. He took the train, walked the ground with his stride – he never measured with a tape measure or anything like that – strode the course out, stored it in his head and organised the course on his return train. It was just like that, quite often." Fittingly, Brora is also the HQ of the James Braid Golfing Society.
Braid's Brora offers the traditional nine holes out, and nine holes back, measuring 6,211 yards off the white tees and a tamer 5,951 off the yellows. With a par of 70, it was described by another five-time Open winner, Peter Thomson, as "one of the finest natural links courses I have had the pleasure of playing."
The sadly deceased Thomson, who passed away in June, was an honorary member at Brora. Tom Watson, again maintaining the five Open victories link, is also on the honorary list. American visitors are regular, as is a group from the Bahamas four times a year.
"I consider myself very fortunate to work at somewhere as unique as Brora," says Tony Gill, the Secretary at Brora for the last 13 years having relocated from London and now overseeing a healthy membership of 550 across all categories.
"The view from the clubhouse is hard to beat, the golf course offers an interesting and varied challenge for golfers of all abilities and I get the pleasure of meeting a diverse range of golfers, many of whom are lifelong fans of Brora or delighted to have discovered it for the first time."
Hugh Baillie's excellent book on Brora is entitled 'Golf at the Back of Beyond'. As the sun sets over those humps and hollows on a dreamy day, it's a golf sojourn more than worth making.