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Great Golf Course Architects - Alex Russell

by Neil Crafter
This article courtesy of the Golf Architecture Magazine

‘A hole is not worth a damn if no one comments on it one way or another” – Alex Russell

Alex Russell (1892 - 1961)

Alex Russell was arguably Australia’s finest golf course architect and yet little is generally known of his life apart from his golfing exploits and the wonderful golf courses he left for us.

Early Years

Alex Russell was born on 4th June 1892 in Geelong, Victoria, to parents Philip and Mary. The family were wealthy pastoralists with a grazing property, “Mawallok”, located in Victoria’s Western Districts near Beaufort.

right - Russell in action, 1925

It is believed that Alex Russell’s grandfather, Alexander, emigrated from Elie in Scotland in 1842 with his two brothers, Philip and the Reverend Robert Russell, settling in Bothwell, Tasmania. The Russells were close friends of the Reids of Ratho, who began Australia’s first golf course on their property. Grandfather Alex subsequently moved to Victoria, taking up land at Port Philip, and named his property “Golfhill” - possibly the first record of the word “golf” on mainland Australia.

Young Alex’s early schooling was at Glenalmond College in Scotland, however, by the age of 15 he had returned to Australia and attended Geelong Grammar School in 1908. At G.G.S. he became a prefect, captained the 1st XI cricket team, played in the 1st XVIII football team and was also a member of the shooting team - young Master Russell exhibited considerable all-round sporting talent.

Russell’s birth certificate simply had his Christian name as Alex, however later press reports often referred to him as Alex. Russell, suggesting that Alex was an abbreviated form of Alexander. Yet other articles incorrectly referred to him as Alec Russell.

Cambridge

After leaving Geelong Grammar in 1911, Russell returned to England, attending Jesus College at Cambridge in 1912, where, according to Cambridge records, he passed his 1st year exams but did not graduate. While at Cambridge, Alex played golf, tennis and billiards for the university. Later press reports often described him as a civil engineer.

World War I Service

With the onset of World War I, Russell joined the Royal Garrison Artillery of the British Expeditionary Force, serving with the 126th Siege Battery in France and Belgium. He was wounded, won the Military Cross, and by 1918 had reached the rank of Major. Russell was invested with the Military Cross in a ceremony in London on 21st April 1922.

A Political Life

Alex Russell married Melbourne girl Jess Lucy Fairbairn in London on the 14th September 1917 and returned to Australia with his bride in 1919 where their son Philip was born. Two daughters, Virginia and Robina soon followed.

Russell had become friendly with politician Stanley Bruce who was a fellow member at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. Bruce was Prime Minister of Australia from February 1923 to October 1929 and in 1923 appointed Russell as his Private or Confidential Secretary, a position he held until 1925. Alex travelled to Britain with Prime Minister Bruce in late 1923, to attend the Imperial Conference, returning to Australia in early 1924.

Russell did harbour some political ambitions of his own, apparently giving strong consideration to running for the seat of Grenville in the Legislative Assembly of Victoria, as a relative, George Russell, had held it from 1892 – 1900. When that seat was abolished in a redistribution in the mid 1920’s, Russell, thankfully from the view of golf course design, decided to put his political ambitions to one side.

Russell the Golfer and Administrator

During the 1920’s Alex Russell was one of the finest and most successful amateur golfers in Australia. He won the Australian Open in 1924, held at his home course of Royal Melbourne, while still recuperating from a major operation. A superb opening round of 68 (a course record for the Sandringham layout which was never bettered) set up his victory and he clung on to win by two shots from the 1906 champion Carnegie Clark. That same year he was runner up in the Australian Amateur Championship. Victories in the 1925 Victorian Amateur Championship and the South Australian Amateur Championship of 1926 soon followed. Russell won the Club Championship at Royal Melbourne in 1922, 1929 and 1937, during a period when Royal Melbourne members, especially Ivo Whitton, dominated amateur golf in Australia.

“Golf” magazine of August 10th 1925 reported how Russell had, a few years previous, the makings of a first rate cricketer and tennis player, but poor eyesight was a drawback. Only when he was fitted with spectacles did Russell’s golf reach such lofty heights as the national championship. Russell’s wife Jess was a fine golfer in her own right and was runner-up in the Australian Women’s Amateur Championship on no less than three occasions in 1927, 1930 and 1932.

Russell was elected a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews on 13th August 1951, and held that membership until his death in 1961, a singular honour for an Australian golfer. He was also a member at Barwon Heads Golf Club in Victoria and when in Britain with Prime Minister Bruce, they personally selected Bud Russell (no relation) from Gullane in Scotland to emigrate and be that club’s new professional, a job he held for well over 50 years. Alex was made a Life Member of Royal Melbourne in 1933 for his services to the club and continued to serve as a member of the club’s Council (Committee) until 1955.

Golf Course Architecture

It seems most likely that Russell first took an interest in golf course design during the various times he spent in Britain. As Harry Colt was the dominant course architect there before World War I, and indeed after, there is little doubt Alex would have been influenced by Colt’s ideas and philosophies. While it is likely that he had read the writings of both Colt and Mackenzie, he would have been more familiar with the work of the former. It is also known that Russell studied Robert Hunter’s 1926 book “The Links”, as he commends this book to The Secretary of Lake Karrrinyup Country Club in Perth in a letter to the club of March 1928.

Mackenzie became a partner of Colt, and later Hunter became a partner of Mackenzie in the USA. If prior to 1926, Russell had embraced the ideas of Colt, and probably those of the Good Doctor and Hunter as well, it is not surprising then that Mackenzie and Russell should see eye to eye when they finally did meet.

Royal Melbourne

Russell was asked by his club in 1924 to provide a plan for a remodelled 18 holes at Royal Melbourne and this indicates that the Club must have been well aware of his interest in golf course design. What is clear, is that he copied the approach used by Colt of first drawing a contour plan and then producing a three dimensional model of the planned course in plasticine, skills he would have learnt as a civil engineer and a Major in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This model was on display at the Club for some time and his modelling work commented upon by the press of the day as being “distinctly brainy. The one he constructed for his proposed lay-out for the new Royal Melbourne course was very well done, and received unstinting praise from Dr. Mackenzie.”

Therefore, the perception that prior to Dr. Mackenzie's visit, Alex Russell was an "empty vessel" as far as golf course design was concerned and that he learnt all his skills from MacKenzie, is contrary to recorded opinion of the time. While there is no doubt that Russell would have learnt a great deal from the Doctor, there is abundant evidence that Russell was widely read and educated in the principles of golf course design prior to MacKenzie's arrival. He had studied the great links and inland courses of the British Isles and his amateur career had led him to play all the leading courses throughout Australia. It should also be remembered that at the time of Mackenzie’s 1926 visit, Russell was only 34 years of age.

The Doctor’s visit, along with the publishing that year of Hunter’s book “The Links”, stimulated an awakening of interest in golf design in Australia, as this account from the Melbourne “Herald” newspaper of November 3rd 1926 explains under the heading of “Pants for Pine Valley”:

“These days, with Dr. Mackenzie here, practically all our prominent golfers are discussing golf courses, golf holes and golf architecture generally. Everywhere one goes, someone is sketching what he considers an ideal hole, and explaining just what the Doctor does to bring about his golfing transformations. Robert Hunter’s great book, with its exquisite illustrations of greens and holes and bunkers and such like, has been bought up so ravenously that it is now impossible to procure a copy, and groups poring over it may be seen in every club house. Alex Russell, the former open champion, has been so intrigued by some of the illustrations, particularly some showing views of Pine Valley course in the U.S.A., that he will not now be happy until he plays over some of the courses.”

Russell’s design for Royal Melbourne was highly praised by Mackenzie in his letter of recommendation of Russell:

"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 of November 1926, Mackenzie announced that he had taken in Alex Russell as a partner to carry on his works after he left Australia. Further, he emphasises 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.”


the partership's letterhead.

An article in "Table Talk" of the 9th December 1926 provides a similar view on Russell's competence:

“Russell is a brilliant man, has travelled extensively abroad, and has for a very long time closely interested himself both in the theory and practice of golf architecture. Rated at plus 5, his golfing standing will immediately give him considerable authority among

Australians, and the suggested remodelling of Royal Melbourne, which he submitted to the club a couple of years ago, so struck Dr. MacKenzie that it finally decided him in accepting Russell as his Australian representative.”

Finally, there were the comments in "Table Talk" of February 16th 1927, following Russell’s selection as architect to design the new Yarra Yarra course at East Bentleigh in Melbourne.

"I expect more from him (Russell) than I would have from MacKenzie had this big task been entrusted to this world authority. MacKenzie would not have bought to it the enthusiasm that Russell will have; he would not have put into the work the time that Russell will; he would not be so thoroughly possessed of local conditions as the Royal Melbourne man will; he would not have so much to gain by a perfect work, and although beyond doubt MacKenzie's knowledge of his subject is greater at the moment, Russell's store of information is not to be taken lightly. He is likely to cause a very pleasant surprise by what he does on this magnificent piece of land."

These extracts show that Russell was not only competent, but also highly qualified in a theoretical sense to carry out any tasks associated with the redesign of Royal Melbourne. What he obviously 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, talented head greenkeeper and constructor 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 the plans was necessary and modifications were required to meet changing site conditions and additional land, but Russell carried out the detailed design work and construction supervision with aplomb. Nearly 5 years had elapsed from the Doctor’s visit until the West Course opened in 1931, ironically never to be seen by Mackenzie, the man widely credited with its creation. What is often disregarded is that Russell’s solo works at Yarra Yarra and Lake Karrinyup were finished some 2 years prior to the completion of the West Course.

Russell’s skills alone are on display in the East Course at Royal Melbourne which opened in 1932. A.D. Ellis in the club history states that 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 skillfully performed by anybody.”

Yarra Yarra

In early 1927 the Yarra Yarra Golf Club decided to move from its existing course located on clay soils at Rosanna to one on more conducive land. Eventually, a suitable parcel of 121 acres of sandy, market-garden land on Warrigal Road at East Bentleigh was selected and purchased. Alex Russell was requested to inspect the land and report on its suitability – he submitted his report to the Club on the 4th February 1927. The report clearly impressed them as four days later, just over a month after Mackenzie had left Australia, Russell had secured for the new partnership of Mackenzie & Russell their first commission.


Russell's brilliant bunkering at the one shot 11th hole.

An article by “Back Spin” in “The Sporting Globe” newspaper from February 9th 1927 suggested that Russell would be entrusted with this design prior to the official announcement. Interestingly, the article went on to discuss 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.”

There is no evidence to suggest that Mackenzie saw the land for Yarra Yarra prior to leaving Melbourne on the 30th November 1926, as it had not been selected by this time - thus Russell bore full responsibility for the development of the new course. Evidence supporting any involvement of Mackenzie in its design relies on a single press report in the Australasian of 23rd April 1927 that indicated Russell’s plans had been sent to Mackenzie for his input:

“The design of the round embracing, of course, the scheme of hazards, grassy mounds, and hollows, as well as sand bunkers, is now in transit across the seas for Mackenzie’s inspection.”

If this occurred, there is no evidence of any response by the Doctor. However, it is possible that talented constructor Mick Morcom had an involvement in aspects of the construction of the new course. “Golf Australia” reported in 1927 that, “Russell will not be short on help with his deliberations with men like Morcom around to advise him.” Due to Morcom’s Royal Melbourne commitments, it is likely such assistance, if it occurred, came in the form of short visits during the construction phase.

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. In December 1928, Alex Russell was honoured by Life Membership at Yarra Yarra, in appreciation of his services to the club. Club records show that these services were provided for what could only be described as a negligible fee – the sum of £75 was paid to Mackenzie and Russell in January 1929.

Canberra

Russell’s designing activities took him outside of Melbourne to other Australian cities as well, and eventually across the Tasman to New Zealand. A report in “Golf” magazine of November 1st 1927 stated that:

“Alex. Russell is becoming more engrossed every day in his new-found business of golf course architecture. He recently paid a visit to Canberra to see how things were progressing in the golfing line up there. Evidently he wants to make sure that his friend the Prime Minister, Mr. Bruce, is provided with a decent class of links on which to take his recreation, now restricted almost exclusively to the Royal and Ancient Game.”

This report gives no detail as to the course, however, The Australasian newspaper reported in its October 29th 1927 edition that Alex Russell had been entrusted with the task of laying out a new course at the rear of Red Hill in Canberra, on a site that had been selected by him. Nine holes were to be constructed initially, followed by a subsequent nine at a later date. It is believed that this course was never built even though it had been envisaged as a site for Royal Canberra, who instead selected land at Westbourne Woods. By 1947, the site did eventually become a golf course, when the first nine holes of the Federal Golf Club were built there to a design by James H. Scott of Elanora.

Perth

The Lake Karrinyup Country Club was described by its first captain as having been “conceived in the days of prosperity and born in the days of depression.” From what was virgin bushland just 16 kilometres north of Perth, Western Australia in 1927, adjacent to Lake Careniup, a small band of enthusiasts developed the course which eventually opened for play in July 1929. The Club appointed Keith Barker, on one of his trips to Melbourne in 1927, to approach Alex Russell to be the course architect and he agreed, duly arriving in Perth on 20th February 1928, during the middle of a searing heatwave. Barker was already friendly with Russell and his wife as he often visited them in his travels east with the Spalding company. He later recorded that Russell had told him that Mackenzie was impressed with the immediate results of the new partnership. Barker also reported on an early policy alternative advanced by Russell, concerning the location of the clubhouse at lakeside or on the northern-most hill. Russell explained that:

“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, taking notes and sketching over 4 gruelling weeks in the Perth heatwave, contending with the dense Tuart forest, sand and flies. At the end of each day he, Barker and others would retire to the Osborne Park 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. His plans also included the provision of a nine hole practice course that did not eventuate. In the manner of Mackenzie at Royal Melbourne, Russell personally supervised the construction of one green, the par 3 8th across the lake, which he felt would become a famous one-shotter, and then left the club to their labours. Before leaving, he was asked if the bunkers could be dug by hand using shovels and his reply was that it would look like someone had been at it with a teaspoon! After excavating one bunker this way the club resorted to the proven method of horse and scoop. The ensuing construction of the course proved most difficult - the cost of clearing the fairways at £11 an acre was in fact more than the cost of the land! Sixty Italian clearers camped behind the current 15th green and manfully went about their task.

The Club decided during 1933 to bring Russell back for a review of the course, but found him a difficult man to pin down as apparently the wool clip that year at “Mawallok” was higher than anticipated. Russell was booked to fly across, and given Russell’s apparent fear of flying, some effort must have been made to get him to Perth in November. He first undertook a brief review of the Cottesloe Golf Club’s course and then spent 2 weeks assessing the course at Karrinyup, providing the club with a comprehensive report. Russell advised that all the two-shot holes needed extending and that three greens required reconstruction. He found the bunkers too small and narrow and wrote that, “One of the most important things is to increase the area of the bunkers to make them more visible and more alarming.” By the end of 1933, all of Russell’s alteration work was complete. According to Barker, Russell visited Karrinyup at other times in the 1930’s, on his way to and from England, often playing the course with his wife Jess.

During World War II the clubhouse was taken over by the WAAAF and the course abandoned. After the war the course had been reclaimed by the bush and a mighty effort was needed to reopen it. In 1948 Russell was invited to inspect the course, and along with Ivo Whitton, report on the suitability of the Perth courses to host the Australian Championships. Russell felt that significant alterations to Karrinyup would be needed to make it a suitable venue and fortunately the club agreed. These modifications including lengthening and rebunkering, along with some green alterations. The green plans depicted here are from this 1948 redevelopment period and show examples of the improvements detailed by Russell. A bulldozer was made available and by March 1949 all the reconstruction work was complete. It is believed that this is one of the few times Russell’s work was implemented using heavy equipment - quite a contrast to the days of horse and scoop at Royal Melbourne!

Russell continued to keep a fatherly eye over its development and it is known that he returned to Perth with Ivo Whitton in 1952 to check on its progress, just prior to the Australian Open which was held at Karrinyup that year. He declared it a championship course and had every reason to be satisfied with his work. Incredibly, Russell never charged the club a penny for all his efforts at Lake Karrinyup over some 25 years. His son Philip recalls that the only payment his father received was a bottle of Scotch!

Keith Barker recorded some observations of 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 7th 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.”


Alex Russell's green plans (7th and 9th) for the 1948 modifications to Lake Karrinyup Country Club

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. This approach most likely came from Keith Barker, a foundation committeeman of both Karrinyup and WAGC. “Golf” magazine reported in their October 1st 1928 issue that, “the layout… has since been approved and improved by Messrs. MacKenzie and Russell, the golf course experts.”, and later referred to, “…the excellent scheme of bunkering by Messrs. MacKenzie and Russell.” Russell’s contribution to the WAGC course is not widely known.

Adelaide

Russell came to Adelaide in 1929, ostensibly to play in the Australian Amateur at Seaton (he lost in the quarter finals), but also to inspect the new course of the fledgling Glenelg Golf Club. For a fee of £25, Russell inspected the course, sited on Adelaide’s coastal sandbelt, on the afternoon of August 29th, after having played a four-ball exhibition game with Ivo Whitton there in the morning. He forwarded his report in September, and although it has since been lost, later press reports indicated that “he pronounced the country perfect from a golfing point of view and as sporting a course as he had seen. He recommended early adoption of the alterations contemplated when the drift sandhills had been conquered.” Club minutes record that Russell had recommended that a lease on additional land be obtained, with the option of purchasing at a later date, for the further extension of the course as suggested in his report. This additional land was not obtained and Russell’s scheme at Glenelg sadly never eventuated.

Russell, as Mackenzie’s Australian partner, also visited the Royal Adelaide course at Seaton a number of times in his professional capacity, the club having records of inspection visits by him in 1929 and 1951. Minutes of 20th September 1929 note that the firm of Mackenzie & Russell had submitted a report for suggested alterations to the course, including rough sketches for alterations to some of the new greens. It is likely that this inspection had taken place at the same time in late August 1929 as the Glenelg inspection, following the Amateur championship at Seaton. After a long hiatus, Russell was again invited to inspect Seaton in late May 1951. By June he had submitted his report which addressed a number of modifications to existing greens and it appears that most of these were carried out. In 1956, the club honoured Alex Russell with Honorary Life Membership, for services to the game.

Sydney

The New South Wales Golf Club at La Perouse had consulted Dr Mackenzie on the layout of its course in 1926 and they called his partner Alex Russell to Sydney in 1931 to inspect the course, as yet unbunkered, and critique the existing bunkering plan. This he did, and he also is known to have made suggestions for remodelling some of the greens. His recommendations were not taken up by the club, and within a couple of years the course was ploughed under to build a new layout, primarily by Eric Apperly.

Melbourne and Victoria

In 1933 the Albert Park Golf Club in Melbourne decided to expand its nine holer and acquired an additional 30 acres. Russell was selected to do this design, but for whatever reason, the club rejected his plan. When the time came to move in 1947 to a greenfield site at Keysborough, Sam Berriman, the man responsible for putting C.H. Alison’s design on the ground at Huntingdale, was selected ahead of Russell to design their new course – now the Keysborough Golf Club.

The directors of Long Island Golf Club approached Russell in 1933 to inspect their Frankston property. This he did and his report was full of praise for the site but expressed reservations about its financial viability with the Peninsula club right next door. Later that year Russell refused the job to design their course, saying only that, “I regret that I am unable to undertake the layout of your course as I cannot spare the time” - the job went to G.B. Oliver instead. What was occupying Russell’s attention, apart from his property, is not known.

Russell consulted on a number of other courses in Victoria. The Riversdale Golf Club moved to a new site in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood in 1927, laying out a new 18 hole course and the bunkering was entrusted to Russell. He also advised the Portsea Golf Club in the 1930’s and many of the design principles he applied are still in evidence today. Colac Golf Club sought his advice as did the Grange Golf Club at Stawell, which first contacted Russell at “Mawallok” for advice in 1956. He showed the Secretary over his private course, explaining the principles of design, which were incorporated in the first 9 holes at Grange and the later 18 hole course. Philip Russell also recalls that his father redesigned the 16th hole at Barwon Heads, however the committee apparently took a dislike to one of his bunkers and had it filled in.

New Zealand

Paraparaumu Beach is located on a majestic stretch of linksland some 50 kilometres north of the New Zealand capital, Wellington. By 1930, the fledgling club had built 9 holes and by 1937 had extended it to 18, to a design by James Watt of Heretaunga. The course and some surrounding land was purchased in 1949 by a consortium headed by Stronach Patterson and Douglas Whyte and they asked their fellow Kiwi Sloan Morpeth (then Secretary for both the Commonwealth Golf Club and the Australian Golf Union) for his recommendation for an architect – Morpeth put Alex Russell’s name forward.


an aerial view acroiss the Paraparaumu Beach links, with the first green in the foreground.

Russell asked for no payment except for his passage to New Zealand and spent 6 weeks on site in 1949 preparing his design, working with topographical maps prepared by trainee survey cadets from the Army and aerial photographs supplied by the Airforce. He instructed Whyte and greenkeeper Jack Hunt on the execution of natural looking earthworks and left them to implement his plans.

He returned 3 years later in 1952 and suggested only minor changes to the links and complimented Whyte and Hunt, saying that, “…I found my ideas and suggestions had been translated exactly as I conceived them.” Russell had known that the sprawling bunkering of his designs at Royal Melbourne and Yarra Yarra were not appropriate, nor sensible on this windswept links. 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. Here was an example of Russell’s site appropriate design sensibilities at work.
Interestingly though, Russell noted upon his return in 1952 that, “It is obvious that the method of constructing the bunkers was wrong and that most of them will have to be turfed on the steep sides. This will make them look less formidable but will not detract from their value as hazards…..Some of the bunkers which blow badly can be replaced with rough grassy hollows…” Even keeping the bunkers small wasn’t enough to restrict sand blow with sand flashed faces.


With its mountain backdrop and tumbling fairway, the 408m par 4 13th at Paraparaumu is one of the most spectacular and difficult holes on the course.

The question is often posed as to why Russell did not design more courses than the five he is credited with. It certainly was not for lack of trying. The Depression obviously would have had a major impact on his designing activities. It is also known that he competed for other commissions, especially in Victoria, but was often beaten by local architects such as Sam Berriman. Russell’s nature appeared to preclude him from “chasing” work and he certainly did not need to rely upon course design for his income, unlike men such as Berriman, whose livelihood depended upon it. So his practice through the 1930’s gradually diminished. Then war came again, and once more Russell stepped up to serve his country. After the war, Russell’s main design activity was in New Zealand but he did consult to a number of other clubs here regarding course improvements.

World War II Service

At the outbreak of World War II, it is understood that Alex volunteered for overseas service but was rejected at that time because of his age, and the fact that he had not been part of the Army Reserves between the wars. However, he eventually served with the General Staff, Southern Command, as a Lieutenant-Colonel. In 1942 he was posted to New Guinea with the 1st Australia Corps and was “Mentioned in Dispatches” for his service there. He then became Chief Commissioner of the Australian Red Cross until 1945, serving in the Middle East and the Pacific. For his work with the Red Cross he was created a Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1948.

(right) Alex Russell, photographed during WWII in his services uniform. A Major during WWI, Russell served as a Lieutenant-Colonel in New Guinea during WWII.

Russell the Garden Designer

A little known aspect of Russell’s activities included garden design. At “Mawallok”, the Russells had developed a beautiful garden and a 9 hole golf course. In 1928 Alex carried out the design of a splendid garden for his mentor, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, who had a Spanish Mission style mansion built for him south of Melbourne at Pinehill in Frankston, in 1921. Bruce, like Russell, came from a wealthy, influential and conservative Victorian family and both men shared similar interests in the military, classical music, Roman history - and of course golf. Russell carried out the task with his usual brilliance and precision, and from all accounts, the Pinehill garden became known as one of the finest in Victoria. Russell had been influenced by the great gardens of England, in particular those of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It is understandable then that he designed an “English Country Garden” for Bruce, who was an Anglophile of the first order.

Mawallok and Sheep Breeding

“Mawallok” had been owned by the Russell family since 1846, and in Alex Russell’s time had been largely given over to Merino sheep-breeding, the stud having been founded in 1870. Alex improved the average fleece weights of his sheep and also doubled the carrying capacity during the years of his control, without impairing the quality of the wool. The annual ram sales at “Mawallok” went for a week and became a legendary business and social event in the region. Russell also was elected President of the Australian Sheepbreeders Association and in later years, when his health began to fail, he passed over the care of “Mawallok” to his son Philip.

The Russells established a nine hole private golf course on the estate. When this opened is not known, but it was certainly in action by 1939, as a letter from a greenkeeper applying for a position at Long Island GC in Melbourne says, “I am at present senior greenkeeper to the private golf links of Major Alex Russell on his Mawallok estate. Major Russell is considered a foremost authority on greens preparation and maintenance …. Our greens, fairways etc, are second to none in Victoria at the present time.”

Alex Russell the man

Some who knew him say he was aloof, but others, closer to the man, spoke otherwise. He was perhaps more influenced by his British experiences in his formative years than his Australian background. He was a man who often initially held his counsel but when he spoke, he spoke his mind as he saw it, yet he was one who the record shows was elected to lead in several of the groups with which he was associated.

Clearly he was a complex character and trying to define the man 110 years after his birth is most difficult, especially as there are so few documents relating to his life – most material refers to his golf courses. Unfortunately, Russell left little in the way of his own writings on his course design philosophy or activities.

Alex Russell died in Heidelberg Repatriation General Hospital on 22nd November 1961, aged 69. He was buried after a private service - a private man right to the end. His wife Jess lived until she was 89, passing away in 1983.

Russell’s Legacy

From an international perspective, Russell may not have gained the recognition that he deserved. By all accounts, playing the role of understudy to Mackenzie did not bother him. Sadly, Mackenzie fails to mention Russell at all in his book “the Spirit of St. Andrews”. Nevertheless, it is fair to postulate that if it were not for Mackenzie’s visit to Australia in 1926, Russell may never gained acclaim as a golf course architect. Prior to this he was famed for his ability with club and ball, not with pencil and sketchpad.

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 the master, Dr. Mackenzie, which has ensured that his legacy will be enduring and enjoyed by generations of golfers to come.

By Tony Hirst and Neil Crafter, with research by Hedley Ham of Yarra Yarra and Dr. John Green of Royal Melbourne.

Other Russell Designs

As Alex Russell appears to have advised a number of clubs, it is likely that there are some of which the authors are unaware. Would any golf club who is aware of a link between Alex Russell and their course, please contact The Editors via info@ausgolf.com.au .

References and Sources

“Geelong Grammarians, 1855-1913" (G.G.S., 1996) by Justin J. Corfield and Michael Collins Persse. It has been the primary source of information for much of this article.
Thanks to Mike Duffy of Melbourne for his information on Russell’s work as a garden designer, John Lovell for information about Long Island and Mawallok and Greg Ramsay for information on Russell’s ancestors.
Thanks to Mark Guiniven of Paraparaumu for his information on Russell’s activities there.
Various period newspaper and magazine articles.
Club histories and minutes, with thanks to Royal Melbourne, Yarra Yarra, Lake Karrinyup, Paraparaumu Beach, Long Island, Glenelg, and Royal Adelaide Golf Clubs for their kind assistance.
“Lake Karrinyup – As it was in the Beginning” by Keith Barker, 1969

by Neil Crafter
courtesy of the Golf Architecture Magazine - click for more