Who is the most under-rated and underappreciated architect of the last century? A strong case can be made that it is Alex Russell.
Six years ago, I played a delightful round of golf on the Paraparaumu Beach golf course near Wellington, New Zealand. In addition to being awed by one of the prettiest natural harbors in the world in Wellington, the golf course was top notch. The layout showed off restrained design choices that worked beautifully: the rumpled fairway contours were left in their natural state, there were few bunkers, although they were strategically placed, and many greens had challenging table-top designs. The result is a quirky links course that stands among the greats.
It turns out that the course I admired so much was designed by Alex Russell, on a small plot of just 130 acres. Russell was an Australian Open champion who collaborated with Alister MacKenzie (whose time in Australia was limited to two months) on Royal Melbourne. Russell’s work is underappreciated in the world of golf. Not only did he “partner” with MacKenzie, he had also sketched out ideas to change the original layout at Royal Melbourne before MacKenzie arrived in 1926. Russell also designed Royal Melbourne’s East Course, as well as another highly-regarded Sand Belt course, Yarra Yarra.
The spotlight has now been turned onto Russell with a new book co-authored by Neil Crafter and John Green titled Discovering Alex Russell : The Man and His Legacy. The hardcover book was issued this year and is 256 pages, interspersing many historical documents and images alongside thoughtful and well researched text.
In addition to highlighting all the courses that Russell touched (more than 30 in total, primarily in the Australian state of Victoria, but also in Western Australia and New South Wales), the authors do a fine job of examining the man. Russell was a product of various preparatory schools in Geelong, Australia, and attended Jesus College, Cambridge. He was born into a family of great wealth; one image in the book shows the family estate from above and it contained almost a mile of water frontage and its own cricket ground, polo field, racetrack, stables and a private zoo. Russell also served with distinction in an artillery company in the Great War; he was wounded twice and received a Military Cross from the King.
Russell pictured in his military uniform during the First World War
The authors do a particularly noteworthy job in the chapter describing Russell’s design philosophy, including his use of diagonal carry bunkers as hazards. Having played both the East and West courses at Royal Melbourne, I was intrigued to learn about one element that makes them such great places to play golf. As the authors explain: “Like Mackenzie, Russell set the plane or general tilt of his greens toward the point from which the approach should be played, almost always toward one side of the fairway or the other, and which side will be the most advantageous often depends on the pin position. The plane in most cases has a gentle fold running through the green that accentuates the difficulty for a player approaching the green from the wrong side.” In a statement of high praise indeed they also note that, “There is no marked continuity between the two Royal Melbourne courses. There is not a sense that “there are Mackenzie holes” or “there are Russell holes.”
My own golf library is weighted with books from America and the British Isles. It has long been a goal of mine to add more volumes from New Zealand and Australia, and the addition of Alex Russell’s biography has me firmly on the way.
— John Sabino