JCB Golf & Country Club: The earth moved

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    The opening hole of the new JCB course requires a water carry on both the drive and approach shot

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    The par-three ninth on the Robin Hiseman-designed course sits in an area that was previously an arboretum

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    An island in the South Lake is home to the green of the par-three seventeenth and tees for the closing hole

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    Alongside the third green an abandoned section of the ancient Uttoxeter Canal was faithfully restored

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Architect Robin Hiseman has spent the last four years building a course for earthmoving machinery giant JCB, right next to its Staffordshire headquarters. Adam Lawrence has tracked its progress.

I first visited the site of the JCB course in January 2014. Construction had not begun, but architect Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design was able to show me the whole routing. The only way we were able to get around the property was because a thoughtful member of the project team had stockpiled several pairs of tall Wellington boots, because of the abundant mud. I have rarely seen a wetter site.

It was clear that the property for the JCB course was interesting, with some nice contour, but that fixing the drainage was the overarching problem of construction. And in one corner of the course, Hiseman could only say ‘This will be a big earthmove’.

I went back two years ago to see a half-built course. By this time there was lots of good stuff in place, in particular the home hole, which I felt, even from my first visit, had the potential to be truly epic.

That big earthmove – the largest on the course, for the par-five thirteenth and its associated lake – was done, and the hole was growing in. But there was still a lot to do – the area that is now holes two, three and four, for example, was a bare construction site.

I go through this process description to emphasise the complexity of the build. But let‘s now go back to the beginning, to understand why the course came into existence. JCB chairman Lord Bamford came up with the original idea of converting the land around the ruins of Woodseat Hall into a golf course. Not himself a golfer, he realised that having such a facility on hand could be very valuable when important customers and prospects visit JCB, as they do a lot. Also, as with rival John Deere’s PGA Tour event at the TPC Deere Run near its own headquarters in Moline, Illinois, it would be a perfect venue for a professional tournament that would spread the JCB name further.

So Hiseman knew from the start he was building a course with two goals – firstly, to entertain visitors to JCB headquarters, and secondly, as a likely tournament venue for the top professionals. It will be played by visitors to the Rocester site, such as dealers, suppliers and major customers, and will, in a year or so, also provide close to 70 bedrooms in a range of lodges. JCB staff can play the course at weekends, at a subsidised rate, and can also bring guests. Public access is not, at the moment, expected to be allowed.

The course is built around Woodseat Hall, literally across the road from JCB’s main manufacturing plant. Some holes occupy the old park – the par three ninth sits in what used to be an arboretum, and therefore features some quite unusual trees – while the rest makes use of the surrounding former farmland. There is, therefore, a fairly dramatic change of landscape feel from hole to hole – most obviously the transition between the first, in the park and surrounded by mature trees and the second, a hole created in what was an open field.

The soil is extremely heavy clay, so Hiseman and his construction team have installed a huge drainage network, including deep-lying herringbone drains and, above them, sand bands of the sort that would normally be retrofitted after the course was completed. The result is a firm golf course, with Wellington boots no longer required. JCB itself acted as the general contractor, and hired shapers, including veteran Canadian Bob Harrington, but bulk earthmoving was contracted out to local company – and JCB customer – JC Balls, and the enormous drainage was installed by Farm Services.

Standout holes include the first, which, from the two back sets of tees, calls for a water carry on both tee shot and approach, as well as avoiding a well place central bunker in the fairway (JCB chairman Lord Bamford wanted water to be in view from the clubhouse, requiring the canal at the bottom of the site to be expanded). The bunkerless short par fourth is inspired by Willie Park Jr’s second hole at Huntercombe, with a fairway that feeds into the dramatically sloped green. The uphill par four eighth has a fairly unremarkable tee shot, but players should really take on the two left side fairway bunkers in order to give the best angle of approach to an extremely attractive tucked greensite.

Three of the four par fives are huge, well over 600 yards from the championship tees. Of these the standout is probably the massively intimidating tenth, which requires a drive into a tiny looking but actually quite expansive fairway, followed by a stout second over a cross bunker, leaving a downhill third to the green.

The par four eleventh has an attractive natural stream fronting the green, and the same stream, in this case with a beautifully built dry-stone wall above its banks, protects the right side of the green of the drivable par four twelfth. The par five thirteenth is another monster. Built in the area of the largest earthmove on the course, the green complex and lake is entirely below natural grade. Like the tenth, despite its great length (627 yards from the back tee), it has been built to set a risk reward challenge to golfers brave enough to take it on. The tee shot is uphill, and the aggressive player must hit his shot to the left of two trees, over a small pond, a carry of some 265 yards from the championship tee. Pull off this shot and the ball will run down into a level area in front of the course’s largest water hazard, with the green in view, at a minimum 230 yards carry over the lake.

The fourteenth is a par three, played over flat ground to a shelf green fully 47 yards long; put the pin right at the back, in the most inaccessible location, and there are likely to be some monster putts.

But it is the finish of the course that is most memorable. The sixteenth is 380 yards and doglegs hard around a very deep, tree-filled natural hollow, while the steeply downhill seventeenth measures 255 yards from the back and plays to a (thankfully large) island green set in the South Lake. And the epic home hole, 462 yards long from tees on the island, is an enormous uphill dogleg left with a huge split fairway and a Lion’s Mouth bunker biting into the front of the green. A three-shot hole for most, it should prove a fitting finish for events coming to JCB.

Let me get this absolutely straight from the first: there is no doubt that, from the back tees, the JCB course is a brutally hard one, which will eat up the vast majority of golfers and spit them out. But as ever with these assessments, we need to note that only a tiny proportion of golfers have any business playing from those tees. From the forward tees, there is no reason why any tolerably competent golfer should not have a fun day on the course, though I’m not sure I would recommend it to absolute beginners.

“I accept that the average golfer would find the course a fierce test from the tips, but they’re not going to be playing from them,” says Hiseman. “I’d wager that for the elite amateurs and professionals for whom they are provided, it will be a course on which they expect to make a score. We’ve two or three driveable par fours and a very short par five in the mix. A local pro had eight birdies on a recent visit!”

Hiseman has a reputation as a designer who is fond of a slopey green. The greens he built at the Royal Club in Bahrain remain among the most dramatically contoured sets of putting surfaces I have ever seen, and I was not at all surprised to hear the European Tour pros expressing their surprise at the greens when they went to play there. But JCB is nothing like that. I’m not saying that the greens are flat – they are far from it, and a few, notably the Huntercombe-influenced fourth and the fall-away fifth will live long in the memory of most players. The island green seventeenth, bearing in mind that at no point can it be more than a few feet above the level of the surrounding water, has some pretty fascinating contours too, and the golfer who finds himself on the wrong side of the Lion’s Mouth bunker on the home hole will have a decidedly perplexing shot. But the greens are mostly very large, and there are plenty of areas where the grounds crew can set the pin without the risk of giving any golfer a heart attack.

Hiseman is a friend, and I will freely admit bias where his work is concerned: I like his style and I go in wanting to like his courses (though that is true of every golf course – there has never been a course I actively wanted to dislike). However, bias put to one side, I think at JCB he has done a remarkable job and has built something that will be regarded among the finest modern inland courses in Britain.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.