The Bracken course is the perfect foil to the famous 18 holes of the Hotchkin course at Woodhall Spa. Respected architect Donald Steel sympathetically routed the Bracken across a rolling landscape of woodland and farmland in the late 1990s.
The Bracken is a good course. But it’s no more than that and is made to look much worse due to having the world class course next door.
I agree with other reviewers that you should play this first as a warm up to its better sister. Nevertheless, this is still a decent course that is worth playing if you’ve made the drive to Woodhall Spa.
This is more parkland than heathland but there are some holes worth talking about. 8 is a great short par 4 with a couple of burns cutting across the fairway, giving you a multitude of ways to try and tackle this hole. 12 and 13 is a nice stretch and the par 3 16th is a great hole over a pond to what looks like a tiny green in the trees.
Definitely worth playing this course when you travel to Woodhall Spa but play this as the warm up, before you play the Hotchkin.
One should not make the mistake of playing the Bracken course at Woodhall Spa after playing the Hotchkin course, because one would only be disappointed. A good comparison would be if you played Sunningdale Old and then played Lambourne (also designed by Donald Steel). The Hotchkin course is one of the finest in the world while the Bracken course is a nice golf course one could find anywhere. Any “second” course next to such an outstanding course would likely not only be judged lower in quality, but perhaps even be judged more harshly than should be the case.
My advice is to try to play the Bracken course as a warm-up, preferably the day before and then play the Hotchkin course twice the next day.
Donald Steel is a gifted designer but I wonder if his routing was limited by environmental restrictions or he was tasked with proving a course could be built while maintaining as much as the natural foliage as possible. I also wonder whether the course was built on a limited budget by the England Golf Union. I first played the course one week after it opened and doubted it could ever turn into a decent golf course given how wide open the course was at the time, poor bunkering and weird greens. However, it has certainly turned into a course that is worth playing once, even if it a course that does not inspire or make one excited to immediately play it again.
Perhaps the Bracken course is meant to be simply what it is, a player friendly golf course where most of the interest comes on the greens which are large and undulating.
Despite the contours of the greens, I do not find the greens to be difficult to read although the undulations do make it more difficult to recover from off the green.
The fairways are wide although there are a few holes where a tree pinches into the fairway unnecessarily so. It might be one of the few courses in the world that has been adding trees since the opening. Trees are often the primary defense to a hole.
Donald Steel produced a routing that is unique with the second nine lying inside the front nine. His routing also takes advantage of the ponds and ditches on four, five, seven, twelve and sixteen. The routing produces an equal balance of yardage from the blue, white and yellow tees.
It begins with a nice mid-length par 4 although a single tree both right and left pinch in a bit. There is a ditch down the right at the tree line. The green is well guarded on the left by a long bunker. The green has a lot of undulations to it.
After taking a path through the woods you emerge to a similar length par 4 that is tighter off the trees. When I first played here one week after the course opened, this hole was wide open on the right to the parallel seventeenth fairway, so I am glad that trees were added. There is a large bunker right of the green with green with a spine in it.
The third is a short dogleg par 4 but has a lot of trouble with a pond left, bunkers on both sides at the turn and another large bunker right of the green. It is a fun hole.
The most difficult hole on the front nine is the fifth, a long par 5 bending to the right, well bunkered and a pond fronting the green. One can hit to either side of the pond to then hit one’s approach shot. There is a nice receptive green with slopes at the end. This is a hole that feels like it belongs somewhere in the southeastern seaboard of the USA.
The first par 3 comes next at nearly 200 yards. There is a ditch fronting the green and trees close behind. It is another nice hole.
The sixth hole is a double dogleg par 5 that is rated the second most difficult on the course. The tee shot needs to favor the right side due to the trees pinching in from the left, yet there are two bunkers on the right. One can advance their ball from these bunkers. Fronting the green are three bunkers covering the front disallowing a shot to run onto the green. These bunkers are fairly deep. It is another fine hole.
Seven brings the second par 3 with another pond but it is not in play on this short hole. It has a slightly raised green and two bunkers. I think this to be a weak hole.
Eight is a short par 4 with a ditch crossing the fairway and another small pond fronting the green sloped left to right. The hole has no bunkers and does not need them as the hole is very tight between the two tree lines.
The finish to the outward nine ends at the clubhouse as a par 4 dogleg right with trees pinching again to make the fairway feel narrow. There are trees near the green on the right and a single bunker left. It has another nice sloped green.
I do not care as much for the inward nine although it has three very nice holes.
The tenth is a sort of odd shaped dogleg right with trees coming too far into the fairway from the left side. After these trees the fairway is too wide. The green has two well placed bunkers on the left side. The best part of the hole is being able to eat berries by the tee.
Eleven is a mid-length par 3 that perhaps is the second best on the course due to the bunkers on the right side and being framed by trees on two sides. The green is slightly raised.
Twelve is a short par 4 of less than 350 yards. This hole is not much despite the two bunkers on the left side of the fairway and one fronting the green. The area to lay-up off the tee is too wide.
Thirteen is another short par 4 and one of the better holes on the back side due to the excellent placement of five bunkers with three at the green fronting and left side. The bunker in the middle of the fairway is quite large, but nothing like the ones at Ganton. Trees provide defense down the left.
A mid-length par 5 comes next. One has to carry three bunkers crossing the fairway. The fairway is a touch too wide here as well. There is a single bunker front right of the green. This hole should have 2-3 more bunkers.
The fifteenth is a mid-length par 4, the second on the course with no bunkers. I did not care for the hole.
Another mid-length par 3 follows with a pond on the left side and another on the right, a single bunker right and trees behind the green. This is the best par 3 on the golf course with another slightly raised green.
Seventeen is a nice par 5 although a bit short from the white and yellow tees. It has two bunkers on the right and two on the right side of the green. Trees protect the fairway on the left side. It has a nice undulating green. It is a good golf hole.
The finishing hole is one with trees weirdly scattered down the fairway, within the fairway and near the green. The green is not much. I intensely disliked the golf hole and left me wanting not to return.
If you go to Woodhall Spa simply to play the Hotchkin course and you miss the Bracken course, you will have no regrets. Upon a return visit, if you do the same and still skip the Bracken course, you still will not have regrets. But somewhere in your first three visits you should play the Bracken course. There is not a lot of strategy required to get around the course until one is on the greens. It is only at the greens that the course becomes more interesting. Whether you return to play it again is likely 35-65.
I don't think the Bracken @ Woodhall gets the credit it truly deserves. I have played this probably around 10 times in the past two years and had it not been next door to a masterclass of British heath land, it could've easily found itself in the top 100 rankings.
The condition of the course is always good and the greens always roll well. It provides a good contrast to the course next door being quite different but does have hints of Woodhall Spa attached.
I think the class of the course really shows early on with the third hole being a great test of a typical risk reward par 5 that long hitters will surely fancy. Followed by a difficult long par 3 to a deceiving green.
The par fives here are a great test not being easy to take advantage of and the par 3's are very good looking with examples of 7 and 16 with water hazards well into play with the elements often exposed to these holes.
My personal favourite is the 8th. Although not much from the tee, it provides an amazing test of club selection depending which tee you play off whether you try to take advantage of leaving yourself a very short club in or a mid iron with the dikes in play down the left and cutting across. A dike short of the green and small pond short left takes away getting the big stick out for the longer hitters but is one often underestimated looking at the scorecard.
Overall I would recommend this to anyone attempting to stay and play as it truly is one worth playing alongside the Hotchkin
The Bracken course provides a contrasting challenge to the Hotchkin. On this more modern layout you will find large undulating greens and water hazards the main obstacles to putting a good score together.
Donald Steel, one of Britain’s foremost golf course architects of the modern era, has created an interesting routing that has the majority of the back-nine inside the outer front-nine. The terrain that the course is played over is a pleasant mix of woodland and more arable ground that is habitat to a variety of wildlife.
The bunkering certainly isn’t as severe and at times the fairways are more generous but some of the holes are also tree-lined and require even more accuracy than the Hotchkin. The Bracken is contemporary in nature and complements its elder sibling nicely.
The beauty of having two courses is that Woodhall Spa becomes an ideal destination for players seeking a short break. With the contrasting variety of both courses a big draw and an overnight stay in the Edwardian town of Woodhall Spa, literally on the doorstep, it’s no wonder so many serious golfers flock to the heart of Lincolnshire to play and stay here.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.