Alex Russell was descended from the Russell family, who were farmers in the Kingdom of Fife during the 18th century, and he was the first child of Philip Russell and Mary Gray (“Cissie”) Guthrie. Both his parents were golfers at Geelong and Royal Melbourne golf clubs.
The family moved to the United Kingdom in 1903 as his father felt for some reason he might have a better chance of recovering from his tuberculosis over there. Alex attended school at Hindhead in Surrey then Trinity College, Glenalmond in Perthshire before the Russell’s returned home in 1907.
After attending Geelong Grammar School for four years, Alex found himself back in England in 1912, having enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge to study engineering. When World War I broke out, he abandoned his course to enlist with the British Army.
He was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Land Forces, joining the Royal Garrison Artillery in the British Expeditionary Force to serve in some of the bloodiest battles in France and Belgium, receiving the Military Cross for his efforts in June of 1919.
It’s believed that Russell played golf while he was at Cambridge University – he never played in the Cambridge team against Oxford – though his golfing proficiency was sufficient for him to win the first medal played at Royal Melbourne after the Great War in July 1919.
Alex won the club championship at Royal Melbourne in 1921 – the first of three that he would win during the 1920s – then he went on to claim the Australian Open Championship at his home club in 1924. He also won a number of amateur state titles and twice reached the national amateur final.
Russell served as a member on the Royal Melbourne Council between 1929 and 1955 and he played in the Amateur Championship twice; at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1935 and at Royal Troon in 1938, losing in the first round on both occasions. He became a member of the R&A in 1951.
Alister MacKenzie’s trip Down Under in October 1926 was a significant event for Australian golf but it was nothing short of a life-changing episode for Alex Russell. By the end of that year, he’d been appointed as the Doctor’s Australian partner in the contest for design assignments against local architects like Vern Morcom and Sam Berriman.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that MacKenzie and Russell had similar backgrounds in that both were Cambridge men who had served in the British Army during World War I, where they realized the importance of camouflage in combat. It’s likely their design philosophies were also largely compatible so a business partnership made great sense.
Russell often charged nothing for his design activities. At Royal Melbourne, his home club, no invoice would have been expected, of course. The amount levied at Yarra Yarra amounted to £75 and, when asked what the fee would be at Lake Karrinyup, Alex suggested a bottle of whisky. Paraparaumu Beach in New Zealand paid for his travel expenses from Australia.
The main question asked of Alex Russell is why his main design portfolio extends to only a handful of courses? The Great Depression obviously had an effect, as did World War II, and he also had the family sheep breeding business to run on the Mawallok estate. In truth, he was a man of independent means who didn’t need to go chasing design work for a living.
Before leaving Melbourne during his famous visit to the city, MacKenzie had Mick Morcom – “one of the best curators and constructors that could be found anywhere” – build one of the holes for the new course, a version of the Eden on the Old course at St Andrews. This hole, the par three 5th on the West course, gave members a taste of what was to come.
An Extraordinary General Meeting at Royal Melbourne voted in favour of allowing Alex Russell and Hugh Ross to supervise the Alister MacKenzie plan for what was intended to be a 27-hole layout at the club and a subsequent meeting gave them the authority to depart from the draft where necessary.
It took almost five years before the West course finally opened in 1931, never seen by the man credited with its design. What is often overlooked is that two of Alex Russell’s solo designs – at Yarra Yarra and Lake Karrinyup – were in operation up to two years before the West course at Royal Melbourne was brought into play.
Jack Dillon from The Sporting Globe had this to say about the West when previewing the forthcoming Australian Championship in 1933:
“Although the ‘voice’ in the creation of the course was that of Dr Alister McKenzie (sic), the ‘hand’ was that of Alex. Russell and the latter would never have made the course quite what it is if it had not been for the knowledge, skill and enthusiasm of M. A. Morcom, whom McKenzie, in an English paper, referred to as the finest curator in golf.”
Following Royal Melbourne’s acquisition of additional land, Alex Russell had been able to lay out the East course (first called the “Second course” or Cheltenham course”) consisting of seven holes from the main property (on land originally intended for a 9-hole layout) and eleven holes on the newly purchased ground.
Martin Hawtree’s report to Royal Melbourne in 2003 commented on this course, which debuted in the summer of 1932:
“The East course suffers from a great many disadvantages, by comparison with the West course. There is no second starting point, many road crossings, a very suburban boundary, a rather flat topography for at least two thirds of the course. It is lasting testimony to the genius of Alex Russell that the course seems to override many of these problems to become indeed some members’ preferred course.”
Yarra Yarra was the first commission for the newly formed partnership of MacKenzie & Russell. The club was concerned that it was falling down the pecking order for golf clubs in Melbourne, behind Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Woodlands and Commonwealth, so a decision was made to move from Rosanna to a better location at Burleigh and appoint Alex Russell to design the new layout which opened in February of 1929.
“Alex Russell’s first solo design effort at Yarra Yarra was a tour-de-force and paved the way for a career in golf course architecture,” wrote Neil Crafter and John Green in their book Discovering Alex Russell. The authors continued: “Undoubtedly he learnt much while making the Yarra Yarra links, lessons he took with him into his subsequent designs.”
Ten kilometres north of the Yarra Yarra property, the course at Riversdale Golf Club in St John’s Wood was set out by Jock Young, the greenkeeper at Camberwell, in 1927. The club was quickly forced to reconfigure the new layout because of the re-alignment of the railway line on its southern boundary, calling in Alex Russell to remodel the course.
After Riversdale reopened in 1930, Jack Dillon from The Sporting Globe commented:
“By the wise, consistent and unselfish work of officers and staff of this club, and through the advice of Australia’s greatest links architect, Alex Russell, Riversdale has been revolutionised… Now the holes are interesting, what bunkering has been done is well done and the turf is up to the standard of the best links here.”
Another Russell project which came to fruition in 1930 was a 9-hole layout on the western peninsula of Phillip Island, at the mouth of Victoria’s Western Port Bay, which was set out for Albert Sambell, a local developer. Built on sandy terrain, the holes weaved in and out of small dunes, with Summerland Bay to the south and Cats Bay to the north.
The course was closed during World War II and even though it re-opened briefly in the late 1940s, it didn’t last more than a couple of years before returning to farmland. Sambell’s vision of making Summerland a holiday destination never materialised – which is good news for the 32,000 penguins that are now estimated to live there in a large colony!
Lake Karrinyup, to the north of Perth in Western Australia, also opened its doors for the first time in 1930. Alex visited in February of 1928, spending four weeks on site. As his partner Alister MacKenzie had done when he built a par three on the West course at Royal Melbourne before leaving the city, he supervised the construction of one green (the par three 8th across a lake) then headed for home.
Building the course took a Herculean effort, involving a team of sixty Italian labourers who removed around a thousand tons of timber from the property. Work started in May of 1928 and planting of grass on the fairways got underway four months later. Astonishingly, play had commenced by July of the following year, though the course didn’t officially open until 18 May 1930.
Alex Russell revisited Karrinyup several times in the following years to make modifications then he returned in 1948 to check on its suitability for hosting future Australian Championship events. He recommended a number of alterations and these were all carried out by the club, enabling the country’s main tournament to be held there in 1952.
Extensive research by authors Neil Crafter and John Green for their book Discovering Alex Russell unearthed a number of other clubs, mainly in outlying areas of Victoria, where Alex Russell advised during the 1930s. This guidance involved extensions to existing layouts, new bunker suggestions and other course improvements.
When World War II arrived, Alex volunteered for overseas service but his application was rejected as he was considered too old at 47. Instead, he joined the Citizen Military Forces in 1940. The following year, he was appointed a Member of the Australian Red Cross Society and the Deputy Commissioner to the Middle East Overseas Unit, spending time in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.
After returning to Australia in 1942, he volunteered again and was accepted this time for the Australian Imperial Forces (serving in New Guinea) before returning to the Red Cross Society the following year, visiting Ceylon, India and Burma on tours on inspection relating to the repatriation of Australian soldiers who had been Japanese prisoners of war.
Alex was demobilized from field service in March of 1946, having served on full-time war duty for 1,118 days, with more than a quarter of that time spent outside Australia in The Middle East, Ceylon, New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines. He was awarded several medals and was mentioned in despatches for Gallant & Distinguished Services in the South West Pacific on 23 December 1943.
Paraparaumu Beach, located some fifty kilometres north of Wellington in New Zealand, was Alex Russell’s last big-name golfing project. A decade after an 18-hole layout debuted in 1938, the course needed revising and Alex was commissioned to do just that, spending six weeks there in early 1949 supervising those who were tasked to carry out the required earthworks.
He paid another visit in 1952 to see how things were progressing but club resources were so limited that it took another couple of years to fully complete a remodelling exercise that involved adding new holes, installing new tees and redesigning greens. It’s quite different to any of the other courses Alex designed, apart from maybe Summerland, proving he was more than capable of fashioning a links layout when given the opportunity.
Alex Russell was not a man to suffer fools gladly and many would have found him rather intimidating to deal with. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind – though his son Philip described him as “always right” – so perhaps that’s one reason why he resigned from several club committees in the course of his career. On the other hand, his daughter Robina felt he was rather shy, despite appearing to have a confident manner.
He was widely respected, generally liked by those he came into contact with and very loyal to his friends. Alex excelled at every sport he participated in – fishing and shooting at Glenalmond, Australian Football and cricket at Geelong Grammar School, tennis and billiards at Cambridge – before going on to achieve so much in golf.
His health deteriorated during the late 1950s, suffering a series of strokes during that decade, and he was admitted to the Heidelburg Repatriation General Hospital when his wife could no longer nurse him at their South Yarra apartment. Alex died on 22 November 1961, aged 69, and was cremated two days later at Springvale Crematorium after a private family service at the Toorak Presbyterian Church.
Discovering Alex Russell by Neil Crafter and John Green (2017)
Peter Thomson concluded his foreword to the book by writing: “Alex Russell was the first home-grown Australian golf architect to achieve fame. It is a pity he was not able to create more. Whether his work was really MacKenzie by another name is debateable. For mine, he was his own man and indeed who knows – MacKenzie may have picked up a thing or two from Alex Russell."
Thanks to Julia Green at the European Institute of Golf Course Architects for loaning a copy of the Crafter and Green book when researching this article.