Somewhere, there must be a smile etched on the face of the ghost of Alex Russell.
The man who won the 1924 Australian Open in a multi-talented career had design credits that include not only Yarra Yarra Golf Club but also the East course at Royal Melbourne, Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club outside Wellington plus Lake Karrinyup Country Club and The Western Australian Golf Club in Perth. It was at Yarra Yarra where Russell forged his design identity to a degree, and such was the positive reception at the 1929 opening, he was bestowed life membership to the club.
Yet time and tide have a way of pervading even the most idyllic settings, as during the decades Yarra Yarra slipped moved away from the Russell ethos. The site became overgrown in parts, while the layout began to bear the fingerprints of too many cooks who spoilt this broth. So in 2017 the club engaged Tom Doak and his team from Renaissance Golf Design to gradually revive the esteemed course designer’s work at Yarra Yarra. The Russell restoration project is only partially complete, but it’s very much a case of ‘so far, so good’ for the Sandbelt mainstay.
“Yarra Yarra is one of the finest courses designed by the esteemed Alex Russell and stands up extremely well in a neighbourhood noted worldwide for fine and unique golf courses,” Doak said. “Mr Russell surely made the most of an elegant piece of property. It is with great pleasure that we have been appointed by the Yarra Yarra Golf Club.”
Overall, Doak hopes to integrate the tees into their surrounds as part of a greater decluttering of the site; remove superfluous bunkers and/or reshape any bunkers that are out of character with the Russell style; adjust fairway mowing lines to fully engage with hazards and present strategic risk/reward angles into tucked hole locations and restore altered greens where possible. Where greens can’t be restored to their original location, Doak intends to at least rebuild them to look and play like the original Russell greens elsewhere on the course.
Doak’s work on the first seven holes is largely finished, and what’s immediately noticeable is how much more space has been revealed with a sensible review of the trees and ground vegetation. This part of the course – along with the also-restored 13th and 14th holes – now breathes far more. Original playing lines are evident again and the bunkering returned to their former positions in many instances. Teeing grounds flow as part of expansive swathes of short grass, in many cases retaining a (safe) connection to the previous green in a logical and visually appealing movement. If it’s possible to give something new an old-style look, then this is it.
Five greens are next up for replacement, while vegetation removal will be an ongoing part of the project. In all, it’s a plan that can propel the club back to the top echelon of Australian courses.
Yarra Yarra’s magnificent centrepiece – the club’s quartet of exceptional par 3s – remains largely untouched. The only change to them is the order golfers now see them in. With the Doak renovations to date, the sequence of the first six holes was altered to place the old par-3 first hole as the third and the short fourth as the sixth. For those who remember the former configuration, the starting order is: six, five, one, two, three, four then onto what has always been the seventh hole.
Among the work still remaining to be done is a unique and genius plan for a spare hole, plus a revision of the current fifth hole and, therefore, sixth tee. With the spare hole, space exists between the greens of the par-4 13th and par-5 16th to create something special to make this part of the golf course more fluid. Double-greens oriented to be playable from either hole will create arguably the most flexible spare hole anywhere.
“It potentially allows us 20 holes,” says Yarra Yarra general manager Peter Vlahandreas. “And the 19th hole will have an enormous double-green separated by a tier so it allows you to play to different pins. So for a very short, small, tight golf course, we’ll have 20 holes.”
But it doesn’t stop there. “That configuration allows for a par-3 course to be created as well using those greens,” Vlahandreas says, adding that the playing directions to these three greens will allow for as many as nine short holes. “It’s a cool little concept – the first of its kind.”
“That configuration allows for a par-3 course to be created as well using those greens, It’s a cool little concept – the first of its kind.” – Peter Vlahandreas
And after Martin Hawtree redesigned the fifth (formerly the third hole) several years ago with a controversial outcome, there is space to return the hole to a dogleg right, which would have the happy side effect of creating room for a new sixth tee to the left of the existing one that would accentuate the angle to the long green of the short par 3.
Yarra Yarra’s members are remaining patient while the work is undertaken, however the ultimate pay-off for them is an upgraded golf course with modern touches that will far better reflect the original genius of Alex Russell.
“Our members have been fantastic during the process and have been unbelievably accommodating to the restoration and the impacts to our busy golf calendar,” Vlahandreas says. “Yarra Yarra members are thrilled to see their Alex Russell golf course being carefully restored by Renaissance Golf Design. There is a true sense of pride within the membership of Yarra Yarra and we are excited to showcase the true genius of Alex Russell to the golf world once our restoration is complete.”
Yarra Yarra Golf Club
Where: Warrigal Rd, Bentleigh East VIC 3165
Phone: (03) 9575 0575
For more information on a Golfing Great head to Visit Victoria.