Updated: Aug 18
It finally happened!
JCB is the course that has eluded me more than any on my top 100 travels so far and yet it should have been one of the easier ones to tick off.
Less than 40 miles from my home and just down the A50 from Derby where I was the city’s newspaper editor, I have enough contacts to have secured a round long ago.
But every time they seemed to be within my grasp, opportunities disappeared… until now.
Thanks, therefore, to a chap I met earlier this year at Woburn and two of his clubmates, one of whom, is a member of Lord Bamford’s much-lauded venue.
And I am thrilled to report that JCB did not disappoint. Au contraire – I am buzzing having played a track which feels much older than its five years and will surely become ever better as it matures.
JCB feels like a cross between high-end Spanish venues and American country club golf from the moment the barrier rises after the friendly welcome at its gatehouse.
Lord Bamford opted into golf to expand knowledge of his brand further across the world and business partners make up many of the majority corporate membership.
One of our quartet has been enrolled for some time and was a great companion and an invaluable guide to one of the toughest courses in the country.
Before we embarked on our golf, we were greeted warmly at the reception of the magnificent glass-fronted clubhouse and gifted a JCB towel with our name.
A splendid breakfast was enjoyed as we looked out onto the impressive driving range to which we then adjourned for a few balls before putts and chips on more extensive practice grounds.
And then we collected the buggies (they are recommended because of the continental nature of the course) in the famous JCB colours before arriving at the first tee, marked by model diggers.
I have never witnessed such flamboyant advertising at a golf club before but it adds rather than detracts from the experience.
My trepidation about whether I would be embarrassed by the course’s difficulty had been fuelled by warnings by those who had already played it and videos on YouTube.
Nerves were hardly quelled by the member who took great fun in outlining each hole’s potential horrors before our drives. These always included the need for bunker avoidance, occasionally joined by water and often by the wickedness of green slopes or tiers.
He didn’t need to add that if the ball finds its way into the deep rough it would be lost because that soon becomes obvious.
The first hole is a beauty with just two stretches of water to combat. To be honest, neither should be a problem because there is plenty of landing space.
However, the entrance to the green is narrow with sand awaiting those who bail right on their approach and a steep slope lurking to catch out those who leak left.
The second is a shorter hole so, in theory, should be a scoring opportunity but, from the tee, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to place the ball other than sand because of the nine giant bunkers and the right-to-left fairway camber.
My first three-pointer came on the par-five third where I can testify that course management may be the more sensible option rather than cutting the corner of the extreme dogleg.
This is one of JCB’s more memorable holes because the Uttoxeter Canal run down the right-hand side of the green. An imprecise shot towards the flag may hit a ridge feeding the ball towards the water.
We thought this approach was tricky but it was meek compared to the fourth, a bunkerless par-four whose defence is an astonishingly wide three-tiered green.
In the opinion of our group, the fifth needs readjustment. At more than 200 yards downhill, with mounds on the left and a deep bunker on the right, it also has a stream at its rear. There just isn’t a clear route to score.
However, there is a chance on the sixth, an uphill par-five, weaving between huge bunkers before a plateau green in front of another deep sand trap.
There are very many bunkers at JCB and I found myself in many but the white sand is consistent and fluffy and my only mistakes coming out of them were from hitting the ball too hard.
The ninth was my round’s champagne moment. This is a descending par-three over water to a giant false-fronted green surrounded by traps with rough and trees to the rear and a slope off the right.
My seven-iron strike was peachy and moved from the left to within eight feet of the flag. I thudded in the putt for birdie.
The complex par-five 10th highlights how difficult it can be to play a top-100 course for the first time.
From the tee of this head-scratching double dogleg, all that can be seen is a cluster of trees to the left of the fairway and giant bunkers on either side.
If that is safely negotiated, the green is still out of view and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious landing spot for the second shot because all that can be seen is a large oak, deep rough and more bunkers.
It transpires that the target, with sand on its right, is set down behind mounds. I was very happy to walk away with a six and two Stableford points.
JCB mixes it up with a couple of fun short par-fours, including the 11th, a dogleg into a green protected by a stream. Sadly, my club selection was awry, so I found the water.
This is followed by the mind-bending 12th, a par-four of just 275 yards over central bunkers with water on the right. Long conversations about how to tackle it preceded a complete muck-up by my partner and me.
I wish I had seen the drone footage of the par-five 13th before tackling this hole which is blind off the tee and then bends around a lake and has bunkers lining its entire length. It is handsome and needs to be played again.
The final three holes at JCB comprise one of the most exhilarating climaxes in English golf and left me buzzing.
The 16th is a curving par-four around thick rough and water on the right and big sand traps on the left.
I was thrilled to nail my drive and see my approach head straight towards the flag only to watch aghast as the ball struck a bank on the green and fell away down the slope to its right.
A linksy putt back up the hill was good enough for me to nail my par.
And then comes the fabled 17th which has fast become one of the most iconic holes in England.
Videos of the downhill, par-three island hole had been quaking in my shoes but, fortunately, on this day, it was 210 yards rather than the much-discussed 255.
Nevertheless, because the green is long, I turned to my driver for fear of finding the wide stretch of water and was thrilled to see my ball finding the target and staying there.
My birdie putt was 18 inches short but I was delighted with a par.
There was no such high joy in the incredibly difficult home hole which demands a drive over the lake to a slither of fairway in front of bunkers and then more than 200 yards uphill to a massive green protected by a ginormous sand trap.
It completed one of the most dazzling days of my travels.
On the downside, the round was very long because of those in front and the greens were not running as true as they might have done.
But that did not detract from a fabulous, often surprisingly quirky course which is so pleasing to the eye, played with great company in glorious sunshine.
It had taken a while to play it but JCB lived up to its billing.