Classic Course: Brae Burn Country Club

By Ron Sirak

6th Hole (Photo by Evan Schiller)

If champions determine the quality of a golf course, then Brae Burn Country Club on the outskirts of Boston is firmly among America’s elite. When the record offers up names like Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Francis Ouimet, Harriot Curtis, and Beth Daniel, the place is something special.

Like many of the courses that emerged in the decades that straddled the turn of the 20th Century, Brae Burn Golf Club, as it was first known, evolved over time. The original six-hole layout by brothers Henry and Frank Day ran across family land in West Newton, Mass., eventually growing into a championship venue. 

The club was incorporated as a nine-hole course in 1897, expanding to 18 in 1903, four years after the clubhouse was built. The next year, the name was changed to Brae Burn Country Club. Its first brush with greatness came in 1900 when Harry Vardon and fellow Englishman Ben Nicholls played an exhibition match as they barnstormed America to grow the game.

In 1906, the club staged the U.S. Women’s Amateur, won by Curtis, who lived in nearby Manchester, Mass. In 1932, Harriot and her sister Margaret (who won the Women’s Amateur in 1907—defeating her sister in the finals—’11, and ’12) donated a silver bowl for the Curtis Cup matches between amateur women from the United States and Britain, which was held at Brae Burn in 1958 and in 1970.

1st Hole (Photo by Evan Schiller)

The original 18-hole layout was used until 1912 when Donald Ross did a redesign. Ross had other connections to Brae Burn: His brother, Alec, who won the Massachusetts Open six times between 1906–12, was the Brae Burn pro in 1907 when he won the U.S. Open.

Bradley S. Klein, author of Discovering Donald Ross, calls Brae Burn “one of Donald Ross’s more ingenious routings.” According to Klein, Ross “makes ideal use of a complicated parcel.” He says: “At the second tee the holes kick into high gear, commencing an eight-hole stretch across classically rocky New England terrain with a lot of side slope. The back nine occupies gentler terrain, with intense mounding that rises out of the softer native land forms. The course climbs back up onto sloping land at the 16th tee before resolving itself at the 18th across quiet woodland. The overall effect is of a vigorous journey.”

The first major event after the Ross renovation was the 1914 Massachusetts Amateur, won by Ouimet one year after his historic U.S. Open victory over Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in nearby Brookline.

Brae Burn held the U.S. Open in 1919 following a two-year hiatus because of World War I and it couldn’t have gotten a better winner as the flamboyant Walter Hagen came from five strokes down in the final round and then defeated Mike Brady by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff. Legend has it that Hagen won after an all-night party with entertainer Al Jolson. 

Ross revamped the course again for the 1928 U.S. Amateur, adding a new back tee on No. 18 that became known as the “Jones Tee” after Bobby Jones, who won the fourth of his five Amateur titles that year, survived extra holes with Ray Gorton, a seven-time Brae Burn club champion, in the second round before drubbing Philip Perkins 10&8 in the final match. Today’s course is much the same as it was then. 

In 1975, Beth Daniel won the first major title of her Hall of Fame career, 3&2 over Donna Horton in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. And Brae Burn celebrated its Centennial in 1997 when Silvia Cavalieri became Italy’s first amateur champion with a 5&4 victory over American Robin Burke. 

One hundred years after Hagen’s victory in 1919, Brae Burn is a sturdy survivor, a place where our soft spikes can follow in the footsteps of the game’s legends.