In 1995 Peter Thomson and his wife, Mary, made a four-and-a-half-hour drive from their home in St. Andrews to the Scottish Highlands. Intrigued by a glowing recommendation from a former caddie, the five-time British Open winner traveled to the seaside town of Brora to play the eponymous course.
Without informing the club in advance of their visit, the twosome paid the green fee in the modest pro shop and played away. By the time they finished, a crowd had gathered to greet them. For Thomson, principal of an Australia-based design firm, Brora more than lived up to its billing, so much so that he describes it as “the most natural links course in the world.”
Few who have ventured to this northern outpost of Scotland would disagree. From its beginnings in 1891 as a humble nine-hole course built on farmland overlooking the North Sea to the current layout that showcases the work of Scottish golf course architect James Braid, Brora provides a distinctly enjoyable link to the game’s past.
Subtle and strategic, low-key yet memorable, Brora reflects the very nature of its designer. Born in 1870 in Fife, Braid captured five Opens between 1901 and 1910, with victories at St. Andrews, Muirfield and Prestwick. He served as the professional at England’s Walton Heath for 46 years while working on more than 200 courses throughout Great Britain and Ireland, including Scotland’s Carnoustie, England’s St. Enodoc and Ireland’s Ballybunion.
Upon the invitation of members, Braid traveled to Brora via train in January 1923. He walked the existing course and selected new tee and green sites before leaving on the following train south. The then 52-year-old, who charged the club £25 plus expenses, returned once more that December for some final tweaking.
What he developed was a 6,110-yard course where losing a ball is much less likely than playing to par. Devoid of overly penal rough, Braid’s use of angles makes second shots from rumpled fairways the primary challenge, especially to greens maintained as firm and fast as possible, as befitting a traditional links. Nearly 50 bunkers dot the course, most clustered around aggressively undulating greens, but unpredictable winds also help inflate scores of even the best golfers.
On a course with a single par 5 (the 501-yard 8th), the foursome of par 3s stands out. The 174-yard 6th heads inland to a small, sloping putting surface. Scenery distracts on the downhill 9th, with Kintradwell Bay as the backdrop on the 162-yarder. The 125-yard 13th, aptly named “Snake” for the serpentine burn that crosses the hole twice, has a well-bunkered green, with wind affecting potential club selection, which can range from a wedge to a 5-iron.
The 430-yard 15th, where out of bounds along the right side of the hole guards the best angle to the green, is often the turning point of matches. The 438-yard 17th uses Tarbatness Lighthouse 20 miles to the south as the line off the elevated tee. The second shot to a raised green is one of the toughest on the course.
The home hole is a devilish 201-yarder to a green fronted by a severe swale. You will surely sense the watchful gaze of spectators from a clubhouse perched above the green’s right side.
It’s not only the Braid lineage that gives the course its character. As the joke goes, you can recognize a Brora member anywhere in the world, for they are the only golfers who raise a leg before stepping onto a green. That’s because since 1967, every green has been surrounded by a two-foot-high electric fence, an immovable obstruction designed to keep grazing cattle off the putting surfaces. (Shots hitting the fence may be replayed.) While not always effective, the wires provide a stouter defense than previous efforts, among them the sprinkling of powdered garlic on the greens.
From its start, the golf club has shared leased land with farmers who historically have held grazing rights, divided 48 ways. Each share entitles the owner to place five sheep and one cow out to pasture. The animals augment a four-person grounds crew, working unofficially in tandem to maintain the close-cropped fairways and winnowed rough. The arrangement has spawned a pair of unique Local Rules:
“Animal droppings through the green or on the putting green may be treated as casual water.”
“Relief will be given where tractor tracks are artificially surfaced with gravel or marked Ground Under Repair.”
As well as hosting livestock, Brora is home to the James Braid Golfing Society. Around the corner from the course, the 22-room Royal Marine Hotel houses a room of memorabilia devoted to the man.
“Having played the game at the highest level, which I think is important, he laid out some marvelous holes with no help from bulldozers or earthmoving equipment,” says Thomson, president of the society, which has nearly 300 members. “Instinctively he put things where they ought to be. Carnoustie is a great example of a clever man doing a clever exercise, as is Brora.”
If you’re lucky enough, you may find yourself standing on the 17th tee near day’s end, with a panoramic view of the entire course and the bay that has remained unchanged for almost a century. Such was the case a few years ago for a foursome of brothers from Texas. An onlooker inquired about an almost empty bottle of whiskey one had placed near the tee marker. “Whenever someone’s tee shot misses a green or fairway, he has to take a shot from it,” a brother explained. “Damn windy out here, so we’ve all had plenty of shots. But this course is what golf is all about.”
Braid and Thomson, with 10 Open victories between them, surely would agree.