A Stroke of Genius

18th February 2020

James Braid, creator of Goodwood’s iconic Downs Course, was a giant in the field of golf course architecture – and his design philosophy of risk and reward remains as compelling today as it was a century ago.

Words by Alex Moore

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James Braid was one of the most successful golfers of the early 20th century, winning the Open Championship five times in the space of 10 years, but it was his writings on golfing fundamentals and his subsequent course designs – including Goodwood’s Downs Course, which he created in 1914 – that really carved his name into the sport’s history books. 

“Keep on hitting it straight until the wee ball goes in the hole,” was the great man’s injunction. But as every golfer knows, there’s nothing straightforward about playing a Braid course, because they’re designed not just to test a player’s skills but their nerves too. He always envisaged, for example, “at least two possible alternative methods of playing the hole – an easy one, a difficult one – and there should be a chance of gaining a stroke when the latter one is chosen”. After all, what is any game without risk and reward – or indeed, penalty? Braid’s guiding principles still hold true, but over the years his Downs Course has undergone some changes. Howard Swan was working under the late, great golf course architect Fred Hawtree when the course was given a makeover in the 1970s. Swan is something of a Braid apostle, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scotsman’s oeuvre, and admits that some of those alterations didn’t feel very Braidlike. But in 2004, Swan – by now a well-known golf course architect in his own right – was commissioned to renovate the same course, giving him the opportunity to return it to something closer to Braid’s original vision.

“It had been tinkered with so much over the years, it had rather lost its flow – and to some extent its excitement – because it’s a wonderfully scenic bit of land,” says Swan. “I’d like to think we took the best of Braid and enhanced it, but never forgot about the spirit of his design – the shape, size and contour of the greens; the doglegging of some holes, with strategic bunkering to suit.”

Swan’s £2.5m renovation has largely stood the test of time, but in 2014, Goodwood commissioned international golf course architects Mackenzie & Ebert to refurbish the bunkers. “One thing we did was reinstate the 14th hole as a sporty par 5, which I believe is how it was back in the Braid layout,” says Tom Mackenzie. “Now, more people walk off with a par or a birdie and a smile on their face, rather than the grimace that came with the par 4. And of course, all of Braid’s courses had a signature par 3 with a necklace of bunkers around the green. The 12th hole on the Downs is our version of that.”

Would Braid approve? Well, as long as the course is an emotional roller coaster, offering players the chance to make or break a round on each and every hole – which it certainly still does – we think he’d give it the thumbs-up.

This article was taken from the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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