The Big Dig…
Creating the 1st hole at JCB Golf & Country Club
The 1st hole at EGD’s new JCB Golf & Country Club, is one of the most dramatic opening holes in golf. It has been likened to an inland version of the iconic 1st at Machrihanish, with its tee shot across an Atlantic beach, except here you play across the deep, still waters of Woodseat Lake. It is a tranquil and seemingly permanent vista. The truth is somewhat different. JCB guests, poised over their opening drives, could never imagine the radical transformation that took place to create this hole. Thanks to the photographs I took throughout construction, we present a time lapse of its evolution, from the first site visit in 2012 through to its full opening in 2018. So, let’s begin with what we first encountered…
Above: November 6, 2012
Looking down the hole from behind the future tee. This already had the feeling of a golf hole thanks to the mown, lawn grasses in the field. The meadow sloped steeply downhill from the road to a rare, remaining section of the disused Uttoxeter canal. The road signs highlight the ‘JCB Arena’, which was a machinery demonstration area sited in a deep cutting, complete with air-conditioned grandstand. You can see how domed the field was, by how little you can see of the distant trees, in front of which the green will be sited. Our task was to make this green site visible from here. Woodseat Hall, the envisaged future clubhouse, sits amongst the stately trees to the right. It’s location here had a significant influence on the hole’s design.
Above: From above – 2012
Long ago, residents of Woodseat Hall were able to gaze out of their front windows over the steeply descending meadow to the canal at the foot of the hill. After the hall fell into ruin and JCB bought the estate, this meadow was infilled with spoil excavated from ‘The Arena’ and a wide road, suitable for heavy goods vehicles, built on top. The view from the ruined hall was no longer important to anyone. With the prospect of reusing the hall as a clubhouse, our client, JCB’s Chairman, Lord Bamford, felt, quite reasonably, that it would be nice to restore a view of the water for clubhouse guests. This was no small design task, given the terrain, but we did cross-sections to figure out what would be involved. I felt that seeing a thin sliver of distant canal would not be suitably impressive, so proposed creating a broad bay between the tee and fairway, which lined up nicely with the main viewing axis from the clubhouse. The cross sections helped generate a plan, which involved relocating the Arena access road, dropping the ground level by up to 10 metres and creating a wide, deep lake. We calculated an excavation of 90,000m³ in this one small area alone. We also had a golf hole to design, which as the future 1st, would need to serve as an inspiring introduction to the course. Detailed design work commenced in 2013 in readiness for the planning application in January 2014. Site work started in August 2014.
Above: May 22, 2015
This photograph shows the early part of the excavation process. The cut area was so deep that it had to be excavated using a terraced, strip-mining technique for safety reasons. The height of the hillside can be gauged by how the slope dwarves the big trucks at the top.
Above: June 18, 2015
The fairway sub-grade level has been reached and the new road is in place. The JCB excavators are starting to dig out the lake. In the distance, you can see the tall staking poles for both the fairway turning point and the green. All the spoil was taken through the gap in the trees in the background to shape up holes 2 to 4.
Above: June 24, 2015
One week later and the outline of the bay is taking shape, with the safety ledge being cut in. At this time, I was thinking it looked an awfully long way to reach the fairway from this, the daily play tee.
Above: July 10, 2015: 13:45
The conclusion of the lake excavation and it’s a properly deep hole now. The inland edge of the lake is 10 metres (33 feet) below the original ground level. The canal is perched about 3 metres above the level of the lake basin. They knew how to build a watertight canal back in the 18th Century; the embankment never leaked. Aquatic plants, taken from the canal edge are piled up, ready for planting on the new lake shore.
Above: July 10, 2015: 17:32
Later the same day and a landmark moment for the project, as we breach the canal embankment and start to fill the lake. Notice that we didn’t artificially line the lake. The subsoil around here is a heavy clay and we were confident it would hold water. Once we were certain it would, we excavated the rest of the canal embankment. Shaping is underway to build the fairway bunkering and green complex.
Above: August 24, 2016 – We were right. The lake didn’t leak!
After a flurry of activity in 2015, the 1st took a back seat whilst we cracked on with other aspects of the project. Here we see the topsoil returned, with a light fairway sand topping to follow. Irrigation and drainage are installed and the lake edges have been hydroseeded for stabilisation. The aquatic plants moved a year previously are starting to grow and our resident ducks are settling in. The lake is also full of huge carp, which lived in the canal and were fished by the local club. The fairway and green shaping is showing up well and I was delighted that the entire green and surrounds bunkering were fully visible from the tee. Doing those pencil-drawn cross sections proved to be wholly worthwhile.
Above: July 19, 2018
The finished, 368-yard 1st hole, framed with a fescue flourish. I wanted the shaping to be complimentary to the tranquillity of the setting, so the philosophy was for long, soft slopes and few lumps. The central fairway bunker has a magnetic attraction and is placed exactly where you want to aim. The best driving line is to the left of the bunker, where the ground is fair and flat, but with Woodseat Lake close by. Playing safely to the right is the cautious choice for the opening shot, but the ball will come to rest on a side-slope and with more water to deal with, both in front of and to the left of the green, this awkward side camber shot may see you aiming too far to the right, bringing the large approach bunkers into play. It’s an action packed first hole, which sets the tone for an exciting round to follow. With all that went into its creation, this may be the JCB hole design I am most proud of. It is a lovely spot to linger and take in the scenery. It may be entirely created by man, but we’d like to think you cannot tell.
Above: May 26, 2017 – From Above
In comparison with the original masterplan, you can see we remained faithful to the concept. We dropped a couple of forward tees, but everything else is much as envisaged. The machine demonstration arena has now been decommissioned, so we have the widest cart path ever built! If you’ll indulge me a moment more, I want to share the before and after view from our 1st medal tee. Originally, I thought we would play everyone from the daily play tee, but it became apparent that strong golfers would likely tee off the 1st with an iron, which I thought was a false start for a supposed championship standard course. The problem was, there was nowhere to go back on line which would make it long enough for a driver. So, I took a look on the other side of the canal, where the old railway line used to run and thought, ‘this might just be possible, but it’s an immense carry first up’. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, we set about it and…it’s gone down a storm. You’re advised to hone your driving skills on the lovely practice range before you head down there. Otherwise, you’ll be swimming with the ducks!
Above: November 12, 2014
After the initial tree clearance, you get a real sense of the bulk of the hill we had to remove. Dane, from JC Balls, the earth moving contractors, stands on the far bank, wondering what on earth I’m contemplating!
July 19, 2018
The view from the 424 Yards Black Tee. It’s between 170 and 245 yards to carry the water, depending on the aim point. The fairway bunker is 285 yards away. It’s definitely given the experts something to think about, but it’s achievable. For us mortals, it’s a thrill to tee off down here and a real buzz to get a good one away. This hole flies in the face of the accepted wisdom of starting the round with a gentle introduction, but is consistent with the philosophy of making the best of the opportunities presented by a site. Sometimes, the two principles conflict, but I’m glad to have had the courage of conviction to favour the latter and sleep easy knowing we did justice to the project and for the client, JCB.