Alex Russell: Australia’s finest golf course architect

  • Lovely Golf Course

    The fifteenth hole on the course Russell designed for Yarra Yarra Golf Club when it moved to East Bentleigh in 1929

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Russell’s original routing sketch for the relocated Yarra Yarra course

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Russell designed the East course at Royal Melbourne alone. Pictured here is the sixteenth hole.

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    Russell’s reputation and status had risen by 1949, when he spent six weeks on site to create a new layout for Paraparaumu Beach near Wellington, New Zealand

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Left: Russell on the front of Melbourne newspaper The Sun. Right: The original sixteenth green sketch at Royal Melbourne /p>

By Neil Crafter

Alex Russell was born on 4 June 1892 in Geelong, Victoria. His father Philip was a wealthy pastoralist with a grazing property, ‘Mawallok’, located in Victoria’s Western District, and a town home ‘Osborne House’ in Geelong, where Alex spent his childhood.

Alex’s first school was St Salvator’s Preparatory School in Geelong, run by Peter Anderson, the 1893 British Amateur champion, who had emigrated to Australia for health reasons. It is likely the young Alex received his first taste of golf under Anderson’s tutelage, as he later recalled that Anderson’s swing was like ‘poetry’. He spent some years at Trinity College in Glenalmond, Scotland, while his father was recuperating from tuberculosis. By the age of 15 he had returned to Australia with his family and attended Geelong Grammar School from 1908. There the young Russell exhibited considerable all-round sporting and scholarly talents.

Russell returned to England in 1912 to attend Jesus College, Cambridge, where he passed his first year exams but did not graduate due to World War I. He played golf, tennis and billiards for the University. With the onset of war, Russell joined the Royal Garrison Artillery; he was wounded by an incoming German shell in 1916 and was evacuated to England for recovery and further battery command training. By 1918, he had reached the rank of Major and was in command of his own battery when the war ended. Russell was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 and was invested in a ceremony in London in April 1922.

During the 1920s and 30s, Russell was one of the most successful amateur golfers in Australia. He won the Australian Open in 1924 as an amateur at his home course of Royal Melbourne. A course record round of 68 set up his victory and he clung on to win by two shots from former champion Carnegie Clark. Russell dominated that 1924 Australian Championship meeting, winning the Australian Foursomes with CH Fawcett and finishing runner-up in the Australian Amateur. Victories in the 1925 Victorian Amateur and the South Australian Amateur of 1926 soon followed. Russell won the Club Championship at Royal Melbourne in 1922, 1929 and 1937, in a period when Royal Melbourne members, especially Ivo Whitton, dominated amateur golf in Australia.

It seems likely Russell first took an interest in golf design during the years he spent in Britain before, during and after World War I. He was asked in 1924 to provide a scheme for a remodelled 18 holes at Royal Melbourne, indicating that the club must have been aware of his interest in the subject. He surveyed and drew a contour plan of the land and then made a three-dimensional model of the planned course in plasticine, skills he would have learnt as a civil engineer and an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This model was on display for some time and his modelling work was commented upon by the press of the day as being ‘distinctly brainy’.

While there is no doubt that Russell learned a great deal from Dr Alister MacKenzie, there is abundant evidence that he was widely read and educated in the principles of golf course design prior to the Doctor’s arrival. He had studied the great links and inland courses of Britain and his amateur career had led him to play all the leading courses throughout Australia.

MacKenzie’s visit to Australia in 1926, along with the publishing that year of Robert Hunter’s book ‘The Links’, stimulated an awakening of interest in golf design in the country. When MacKenzie arrived in Melbourne he was impressed by both Russell’s design and by Russell the man. In his letter of recommendation for Russell, Mackenzie wrote:

“He has made a study of Golf Course Architecture for some years, and on my arrival here I was most favourably impressed with his suggested design for the new Royal Melb. Golf Course as it showed far more originality and ability than the design of any other golf course I have seen since my arrival.”

In that same letter, he announced that he had taken Russell as a partner to carry on his works after he left Australia. Further, he emphasised that Russell “has been continually associated with me while I have been advising golf clubs, and he has not only drawn a number of my plans but has made many valuable suggestions.”

These extracts show that Russell was not only competent, but also qualified in a theoretical sense to carry out any tasks associated with the redesign of Royal Melbourne. What he lacked was the practical experience of translating plans onto the ground. At Royal Melbourne he found the ideal man to assist him in this regard, head greenkeeper and constructor MA (Mick) Morcom.

Russell certainly had an influence on MacKenzie in formulating their plans for the West Course and once MacKenzie had left Australia, set about implementing those plans with Morcom. Doubtless interpretation of plans was necessary and modifications required to meet site conditions and additional land, but Russell carried out the detailed design work and construction supervision with aplomb. Nearly five years had elapsed from MacKenzie’s visit until the West Course opened in 1931, ironically never to be seen by him, the man widely credited with its creation. Russell’s solo works at Yarra Yarra, Lake Karrinyup, Riversdale and the Summerland links on Phillip Island were finished some two years prior to the completion of the West Course.

Russell’s design skills alone are on display in the East Course at Royal Melbourne, which opened in 1932. AD Ellis, in his club history, said Russell “was solely responsible for the design and lay-out of the East Course, work which, according to highest golfing authorities, could not have been more skilfully performed by anybody.”

In early 1927, the Yarra Yarra club decided to move from its clay-soil course at Rosanna to a sandy site, and a bought parcel of market-garden land at East Bentleigh. Russell was asked to inspect the land and report on its suitability and the new partnership of MacKenzie & Russell was awarded its first commission.

The ‘Sporting Globe’ suggested in February 1927 that Russell would be entrusted with this design and discussed the necessity for Australia to import golf architects: “Australians usually are able to hold their own in most walks of life, so there seems no valid reason why we should have to import our golf architects. In any case, why should we have to copy slavishly methods that have been used in Great Britain? Why not assert our individuality, and set up some new standards of our own? Perhaps Russell will give us a lead in this regard. Whatever he offers us, we hope it will be on new and progressive lines as opposed to stereotype methods. Should he make a success of his first venture in this line, a wonderful field should unfold itself for him.”

Russell’s creation at Yarra Yarra opened in February 1929 to rave reviews. It was clear from the first day that the group of one-shot holes that Russell designed were quite outstanding, a reputation they have carried forth till this day. Club records show that his services were provided for what could only be described as a negligible fee, just £75.

A small band of enthusiasts developed the Lake Karrinyup course that opened for play in July 1929. New captain Keith Barker approached Alex Russell and he agreed to design the course, arriving in February 1928 during the middle of a heatwave. Barker later noted an early policy alternative advanced by Russell, concerning the location of the clubhouse at the lakeside or on the northernmost hill. Russell explained: “You have two choices – either you can have the clubhouse by the lake with the course laid out on easy lines, it will be hot in summer and you have to build a considerable roadway into it – or you can have your clubhouse here where we stand, a magnificent panorama, cool in summer, short access from the road but you will have to play up to it twice.”

The club elected to choose the high ground and Russell set about his design work in earnest – measuring, assessing and sketching over four gruelling weeks in the Perth heat. At the end of each day he, Barker and others would retire to a local hotel for a well-earned thirst quencher or two. Russell drew a general plan and a set of detailed green plans for the club to follow. The ensuing construction of the course proved most difficult – clearing fairways cost more than the land.

In 1933, Russell was asked back to review the course and he spent two weeks assessing it, leaving the club with a comprehensive report. By the end of 1933, all the alterations were complete. Russell never charged the club a penny for all his efforts at Lake Karrinyup over some 25 years. His son Philip recalled that the only payment his father received was a bottle of Scotch.

Keith Barker recorded some personal observations of his friend Alex Russell in 1969: “He was an original thinker and had no hide-bound ideas. He was all for alternative routes for the middle and longer markers… He had a keen eye for ground and hated anything artificial… He introduced an ‘heroic carry’ on the seventh and revelled in the criticism this brought forth – ‘a hole is not worth a damn if no one comments on it one way or another’, he used to say. Another saying he had about golf holes in general was ‘if it has to be blind make it bloody blind’. He spent a lot of his student days on famous Scottish courses where every so-called rule of golf architecture is broken – particularly on the most famous one.”

While in Perth in 1928, Russell was also approached by the new Western Australian Golf Club, to modify and bunker their 18-hole course at Mt Yokine, and he also re-planned the Cottesloe course at Swanbourne.

Riversdale Golf Club moved to a new site in Burwood in 1927, laying out a new 18-hole course, with the future bunkering to be entrusted to Russell. Before he could start work, a scheme to run a new railway line through the course took effect and Russell was asked to replan the layout. This he did with aplomb, and the revamped course was opened in March 1930 with an exhibition match featuring Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood, who lavished praise on the design. In 1927, Russell was engaged to design a new 18-hole course on sand dune country behind the Summerland surf beach on Phillip Island, to the south-east of Melbourne. Only nine holes were built in terrain that must have reminded Russell of the British links he was familiar with. Unfortunately, the course fell out of use after World War II and today the land where the course was located is part of the world-famous Penguin Parade. Russell also consulted on a number of other courses in his home state of Victoria, many in country areas.

At Paraparaumu Beach on a majestic stretch of linksland north of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, a golf course had been in play for some time. The course and some surrounding land was purchased in 1949 by a consortium of members who asked Russell to upgrade their course. Russell requested no payment except for his passage to New Zealand and spent six weeks on site preparing his design, working with topographical maps and aerial photographs. He instructed club officials on the execution of natural looking earthworks and left them to implement his plans.

Russell returned three years later, suggesting only minor changes to the links and wrote that he “found my ideas and suggestions had been translated exactly as I conceived them.” He kept his bunkers small and pot-like, while on some holes he eschewed bunkering altogether, rather letting the close-cut slopes of the adjacent dunes provide the hazard.

Russell again served his country during WW2, with his primary role as the Chief Commissioner of the Field Force of the Australian Red Cross, having responsibility for repatriating Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese. This work took its toll on his health and Russell suffered a series of strokes from 1950 onwards, and as his health deteriorated, his involvement in golf design reduced. Alex Russell died in Melbourne on 22 November 1961, aged 69.

From an international perspective, Alex Russell may not have gained the recognition that he deserved. Sadly, MacKenzie failed to mention him at all in his book ‘The Spirit of St Andrews’. Nevertheless, it is fair to postulate that if it were not for MacKenzie’s 1926 Australian visit, Russell may never have gained acclaim as a golf course architect.

Without doubt, Alex Russell was a champion golfer, but champions rarely leave anything but a transitory legacy to their sport. In Russell’s case, it is classical golf course architecture, influenced by Dr Alister MacKenzie, which has ensured that his legacy will be enduring and enjoyed by generations of golfers to come.

Neil Crafter is a practicing golf course architect based in Adelaide, Australia, and principal of the Crafter + Mogford firm. The book Alex Russell: The Man and his Legacy by Neil Crafter and co-author John Green, is a 256-page hardback, profusely illustrated with many period images and plans. It is available for purchase for AUD$95 plus shipping by visiting www.discoveringalexrussell.com

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