Constructed on a 240-acre site next to multi-national engineering and construction company JCB’s main manufacturing site in Staffordshire, the 18-hole layout at JCB Golf & Country Club was designed by Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design.
It’s laid out on a landscape of heavy clay so, apart from shifting more than half a million tonnes of soil during the build, the East Midland construction company JC Balls & Sons installed an extensive drainage system to ensure playing surfaces play firm and fast.
The design brief was to fashion a layout to test elite golfers – similar to the TPC Deere Run course in Illinois which hosts the annual John Deere Classic event on the PGA Tour – as the Rochester course is intended to hold a similar professional tournament that will bring the JCB brand to a wider audience.
Of course, customers and suppliers who visit the company’s site will also be able to play the course, along with employees and invited guests at weekends, but general green fee paying golfers won’t be among the six to ten thousand players expected to tee it up here annually.
Measuring 7,308 yards from the tips, the layout can be scaled down via five sets of tees to play as short as 5,073 yards so there’s absolutely no need for any golfer to walk off the 18th green feeling battered and bruised by their playing experience on this tough track.
Holes are routed in two returning nines around the ruins of Woodseat Hall, transitioning through parkland and woodland areas across a rolling property, with a number of lakes and streams – including Alders Brook and the old Uttoxeter Canal – to be negotiated along the way.
Highlight holes include the par four 1st (with water on the left affecting both the tee shot and the approach to the green), the severely doglegged 3rd (which swoops left and down to a green perched next to the canal) and the par three 9th, played sharply downhill to a green located in what was once an arboretum.
On the inward half, the green of the downhill par four 12th sits above a meandering stream, with the putting surface protected from the flowing waters by a lovely dry stone wall, then the par three 17th plunges spectacularly downhill to an island green on South Lake before the closing hole rises up and left to the horseshoe-shaped home green.
The bunkering on the 18th is quite exceptional, especially the large centreline hazards which split the fairway, and the fabulous three-tiered green on this hole is one of the most interesting putting surfaces on a layout that isn’t exactly short of fascinating green contours.
One of the toughest and most intimidating opening holes in golf (especially from the Black tee tips) sets the scene at JCB Golf & Country Club. A 200-yard water carry will leave a long iron approach to a well-bunkered, offset green that’s also flanked on the left by the same lake encountered from the tee and cavernous bunkers. A par at the first will feel like an eagle for most golfers.
But even the bigger hitting mid-handicapper may have an eagle putt at the very next hole if the needle can be threaded through a plethora of bunkers. If the pin is back left at #2, likelihood is you’ll end up on the lower tier of a green that’s shaped in the image and likeness of a giant’s boot print.
A 610-yard boomerang left par five follows at #3 and it’s not the longest hole on the card. The approach on this genuine three-shotter must avoid a canal-like water hazard on the right to a skinny 43-yard long greensite that’s wedged between canal, bunker and trees.
It’s an absolute stellar start, which is then cleverly letdown at #4 by a rather innocuous (from the tee) and bunkerless par four where the fun starts at the cape-shaped green with its treacherous run offs – a Huntercombe template. Just when you thought you’d caught breath, you then land at a drop-dead gorgeous 200-yard downhill one-shotter.
Rarely do I describe five holes in any review, but at JCB virtually every hole is worthy of narration.
Why do par three island greens regularly appear on penultimate holes? Only Pete Dye knows the answer and even he would smile at JCB’s #17. Play it from the tips if you’re feeling lucky – 255 yards was long enough for me to lose a ball. 204 yards from the middle tees was no walk in the park, but stick with it, as it would be shame not to putt out on one of the most enchanting green complexes I’ve ever seen. Three distinct depressions on the dance floor and three bunkers, two guarding the back and one front right, are set directly into the lake itself where the water gently laps the sand. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
After putting out for a double on #17, step aboard the final tee that’s set on the same island and face a brutal uphill tee shot on this sweeping 462-yard par four.
JCB starts tough and finishes tough. In between there are holes that will give you a chance and holes that will simply make you laugh (and maybe cry). The Double Plateau green at #14 is pure theatre. The greens are occasionally (#4) a mix of Willie Park Jr. and Robin Hiseman. Frankly, I have not seen a better set of green complexes on any English course built after the Second World War. Period.
The ground is not ideal for golf, but even after torrential rain the course played reasonably firmly due to literally miles of drainage. However, my main criticism (apart from a longish walk between #13 and #14) is purely down to asphalt. The cart paths have been hidden from view wherever possible but they are a repugnant blot on what would otherwise be a near perfect landscape design.
Asphalt aside, JCB is a fabulous golf course that’s primed for the Top 100. Which Top 100? We’ll simply have to wait and see.