A Fleeting Glance – How the island hole came to JC…be. Part 2.

Part Two: Creation

I love the sound of chainsaws in the morning.

Especially when the trees being felled were those concealing a view of the island upon which the 17th green at JCB Golf & Country Club was to be built.

It had taken two years to get to this point, but by November 2014, we were well underway with the clearing and bulk shaping and had reached the 17th hole. Within the space of a few hours, the narrow tree belt through which I had first glimpsed the waters of South Lake was gone and we could, for the first time, stand at the top of the hill and behold the full panorama. What we saw confirmed our initial findings. It was going to be a spectacular outlook, but we had a lot of grading work to do to create the perfect view.

Above: November 12 2014: From the future back tee we could see the central part of the island, but very little of the lake in front.

Above: November 12, 2014: From the lower tee site a clear view of the entire island was possible. The remaining trees between the tee and the island would soon be felled.

Work continued through the winter months to clear away the undergrowth from the hillside and the island. This brought to prominence the fine specimen trees retained to frame the new green. They had been swamped by towering laurel bushes, but now stood clear and proud, especially a lovely oak and a shapely, pyramidal Dawn Redwood.

Above: March 10 2015: The big willow tree in the middle of the island is down and looking to the north along the thin axis we can now see the lovely outline of the oak which will become a feature tree to the left of the green. Notice how the green centre staking pole is at the back edge of the island, indicating there would be plenty of filling into the lake behind it. The line of play is from the left to right.

With the undergrowth cleared, the opportunity came to try a first golf shot. It was a thrill to finally hit the shot I’d first imagined more than 2 years previously. I succeeded in putting one on the island, but never saw the ball again, as there was still no way of getting over there!

Above: June 25 2016: First shot to the island.

We lowered the water level in South Lake and built a wide stone causeway to get machinery to the work site. The lake was still full of fish, so we could only take the water down so far. With the undergrowth removed and topsoil stored, we began the process of building the island extension. Truck after truck of hard, angular aggregate was laid in thin layers, before being compacted. This process continued until a stable base layer was achieved, upon which the subsoil shaping could proceed, without fear of settlement.

Above: August 12 2015: Unloading aggregate into the lake for the island extension. Marker posts in the lake demarked the extent of the fill.

Above: September 4 2015: Showing the access causeway and subsoil shaping on top of the rocky island extension. The much-lowered water level is very evident.

The benefit of detailed design preparation meant we were very confident the earth shaping design would create the perfect view we required. It was with a sense of great anticipation that the machines moved in to start re-contouring the hillside for the tees. Our design plans had been converted to three dimensional GPS files, which were loaded into the onboard computers on both the dozers and JCB excavators. The in cab visual display showed the operator the current ground level alongside the required design level and they pushed, dug and filled until the basic design sprang magically from the ground.

Above: September 4 2015: Early in the process of shaping the 17th tees.

Whilst the bulk shaping was done with the guidance of GPS, the artistic final shaping was led by our vastly experienced Canadian dozer shaper, Bob Harrington, along with JCB excavator shapers, Mark (Stan) Awbery and Mik Wells. These guys took the basic subsoil shape and gave it character. As we neared the end of 2015 and prepared to bed the project down for the winter break, we could observe the subsoil skeleton of the hole, with everything in place to have it grassed the following year.

Above: October 20 2015: Bob and Stan have put in the fine subsoil shaping on the greens and Mik has fine tuned the tees, ready for the drainage and irrigation. That is Course Manager Euan Grant in the orange and shaper Stan Awbery in the yellow far below on the island. The red stakes below the tees denote the line of the main power cable supplying the JCB factory. This curtailed our plans for the forward tee.

Above: January 28 2016: Deep midwinter and South Lake is full to the brim. The island is cut off until the springtime. I thought it looked alarmingly small as I took this photograph, but this is how I had hoped we could keep it, without an umbilical connection to the mainland. It would never look like this again. The fisherman couldn’t care less…

With its position in the shop window, close to the main road to the factory, the project team decided to accelerate the final preparations for the 17th and get it grassed first. By early August 2016, all of the materials were in place, the irrigation was primed and the Riptide Creeping Bent grass sown. Within a few days in the summer heat, the first tinges of green started to show and we could see the contrasting colours and tones emerge which would define the island.

Above: August 15 2016: The grass seed just starting to pop.

Now we had to commit to a permanent means of accessing the island. We’d all got used to the causeway, so I suggested raising its level to a metre above the maximum water level and leave a bridged gap to allow the water to circulate. I found a photo of the lovely Island Line Trail in Vermont and proposed we did the same, growing trees and shrubs along the banks.

Above: The Island Line Trail in Vermont. We considerd building a scaled down version of this.

Euan and Steve Dewhirst then came up with the clever idea of using pre-cast concrete box culverts, lined up on the levelled foundation of the submerged causeway, to form a multi-spanned rectangular bridge. It would require no more filling material and could be bolted together in a matter of days. Initially, I was a bit reticent, as it seemed a utilitarian solution, but came around once I’d seen the mock up set out on the shore. The bridge went in during the winter months and was clad with timber, giving it an oriental character. It looked very smart.

Above: February 24 2017: The new bridge created a permanent link to the island. The roof of JCB Headquarters is just visible in the background.

Above: March 3 2017: Euan’s drone shot of the completed hole highlights the width of the lake and the 70-metre long bridge.

The bridge was the last piece of the jigsaw. The 17th was finished. Well, nearly… One final flourish was the design of the drop zone tee, which we decided to make out of Huxley All-Weather Artifical Turf, so that everybody facing the pitch onto the green would have a perfect lie. We expected it to be well used!

Above: July 27 2017: The all-weather drop zone tee down by the lake shore. Just over 110-yards from here, but a tricky approach angle over the bunker.

It doesn’t matter how green or manicured a new course looks; it is only complete once you put in the flagsticks. During the summer of 2017, we were excited to stand up on the high tees and look down upon the island, with a flag fluttering in the breeze. The task was over. The island hole was born and ready for play. It was a very proud moment.

Above: July 27 2017: Looking down upon the green with the hole cut for the first time. Now it’s a golf hole!

I knew 17 would be a controversial golf hole. You don’t build a green in the middle of a lake without expecting some kickback from those who proclaim that forced water carries are beyond the capabilities of novice golfers. It’s true. You need to have a reasonable level of competency to attempt the hole. To have made it playable for all would have been impossible without destroying the essence of what makes it unique. It was the right hole to build for the project and for the client. It’s a tremendously fun hole to play, even if you come second in the contest and the potential commercial value of the hole to JCB is immense.

Like its numerical cousin at TPC Sawgrass, the 17th is this mighty challenge that has to be overcome before the round is complete. You know its coming, but aren’t even afforded a glimpse until it explodes into view as you step onto the tee. The anticipation rollercoaster has been slowly ratchetting to the top of the incline and now you experience the visceral plunge of the big, fast drop.

Happily, guests are playing the 17th with the same spirit of fun and adventure with which it was created. They’ll often chuck a ball down on the 255-yard back tee and see if they can possibly pull off the shot of a lifetime, before heading down to their tee of the day to play the game ball. They may not conquer it, but they will never forget it and want to keep coming back for another go. Smiles, laughter, selfies and happy banter have become synonymous with playing the hole.

These two blogs have told the story of the hole from my perspective here at European Golf Design, but everybody who had a hand in the project owns a percentage of the credit. It would never have happened without the vision of Lord Bamford and his project management team at JCB, or the hugely talented team of construction experts and JCB greens staff who put in the hard yards out on site. The story of the 17th hole at JCB Golf & Country Club is a microcosm of what makes the golf architecture profession so rewarding. From the seed of an idea born on a cold, grey Staffordshire hillside in November 2012, we had the opportunity, willpower and collective talents to nurture this bold thought through the complex processes of design and construction until it became the physical reality we see today. We all believed in the concept and have delivered on our promise to build JCB a unique and iconic golf hole. We lived out our best daydream. Life doesn’t get better than that.

Robin Hiseman
September 12 2019