Neil Hotchkin, son of Stafford Vere Hotchkin, sold Woodhall Spa to the English Golf Union in 1995 and within a short space of time Donald Steel was engaged to design a new course called the Bracken which was intended to complement the Hotchkin course in a 36-hole National Golf Centre.
Even though it’s located immediately next to the Hotchkin, the Bracken occupies a contrasting landscape of woodland and former arable farmland, where the fairways and greenside bunkers are a good bit more forgiving than the corresponding elements on its older sibling.
Highlight holes include the par five 4th (rated stroke index 1), which has its green tucked behind a small pond, and the adjacent par four 15th, which is routed in the opposite direction with the two fairways separated by a tree-lined stream that runs the length of the holes.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the Bracken, but was pleasantly surprised. Firstly, it is a little bit harsh to compare it with its neighbour. The routing of the Hotchkin appears to naturally flow across the heathland, with bunkers, hazards and greens blending into the landscape. The Bracken is not blessed with this natural sandy terrain, so the architect has had to construct the course on top of the flattish parkland. The modern bunker complexes and green sites look a little out of place on the open parkland, but ignoring the artificial construction, they provide an entertaining challenge.
The greens really are the key to the Bracken. They are well protected with mounding and are typically elevated with swales and run off areas. This is very typical of a links course, fortunately the turf around the approaches was firm and mown short to allow multiple shot styles. Some of the greens were pretty small, or featured multiple platforms which meant the effective target area was small.
The fairways are generally wide open and a bit bland, but some clever bunkering at driving distance asked a few questions, as did trees and streams. We played the course in late March and were impressed with the conditioning. The course has clearly been built with a lot of drainage and stood up well to persistent rain. Overall, I feel this course is worth playing if you are in the area to play the Hotchkin, but on its own not worth a trip to play.
The Bracken is great complement to the world class Hotchkin, I am very jealous to the members to have 2 very different courses to play. Do not expect anything like the Hotchkin they are completely different the Bracken is a more modern design with very undulating greens.
My tip play this course as part of a trip to Woodhall spa and combine it with the Hotchkin and if your planning a trip to play the famed Hotchkin make time to play the Bracken also.
The town is quality also so if your looking for a quality golf trip you won’t be disappointed.
The Bracken is a great compliment to the test of the Hotchkin. Wider greens and shallower bunkers make it seem more of a resort course. However, there are challenges due to the great design and tricky undulating greens. We played the course on late October and the weather had not been kind. However, the greens and fairways were very well maintained to allow excellent turf to hit from.
The first couple are 380+ par 4s and have challenging tee shots and long greens. The 3rd can see you hit driver over bunkers or lay up short to leave 130-150 to the green.
The 4th is a great par 5. Hit straight off the tee, it tempts you to hit over a ditch with water to the left and trees to the right to reach the green in 2.
The 6th another par 5 sees you hit a tee shot which pinches at 220 yards. The downhill second offers no rewards for going for the green in 2 and is a genuine 3 shot hole.
The par 4 8th makes you think on the tee and to get to the green you have to hit over 2 streams. The dog leg 9th a narrow well protected completes a strong nine.
The back nine offers opportunities to score well. The 10th is another dog leg but keep left off the tee and do not be greedy. The 11th is par 3 but give yourself enough club asthe front bunker make it appear shorter than it actually is.
Strategic teeshots with ditches on the right await the 12th and 13th before you arrive at the uphill par 5 14th. From yellow tees a good drive will clear the bunkers and then keep left on a blind second to give the best possible angle to chip to the green.
The removal of the tree on the 15th makes the tee shot easier as you can utilise the left side of the fairway and leave a 7 iron in to the green.
The 16th is a solid short iron to a green protected by water and a small deep front bunker.
The 17th is similar to the 6th as the fairway narrows and pushes you out to the trees adjacent to the second. Negotiate the tee shot and par at least should be the result. The 18th is a good finish as the tee shots through mature oaks.
Coming off the Bracken you will look back because you know you have left some out there. But the beauty of the course design challenges you decision making on every shot.
Is it possible to compare apples with pears? The answer is that whilst both fruits are somewhat different to each other and cannot be practically compared, they do actually complement each other. Often, reviews of the Bracken completely miss this point as they directly compare it with the Hotchkin, but as the summary on this site states the Bracken is a ‘perfect foil’ to the Hotchkin. It stands up in it’s own right, a totally different test of golf, in so many ways easier than it’s big sister, but in some ways more complex, especially around the greens.
One of my playing partners said today that whilst on the Hotchkin, the biggest test is getting to the greens, on the Bracken it’s the actual greens that are the test.
Standing on the 1st tee looking down the 1st fairway, the vista gives you a good sense of what the course will be like as you spend an enjoyable next 4 hours. Wide open fairways, well positioned bunkers, which narrow your landing area, raised greens and trees that are positioned often into your ideal line. As you wander down the 1st you see the bunkers with consistent sand throughout, but often with gentle lips allowing an attacking shot from them and then the greens which are undulating, often upside down saucer in overall design and swales like little fingers reaching out.
By hole 14 I was hoping to find a green a little flatter, but the greens were the same throughout. Despite the size of some of them, you probably only had about a 1/5th that you could land your ball on and stand any chance of getting near the pin.
After the easy 1st, the 2nd a 417 yard par 4, presents a stiffer test with woods to the left and trees pushing in from the right meaning a narrower fairway. This is followed by an easy 3rd, a short par 4 where a decent drive over the right hand side bunkers leaves a gap wedge to the green. The the 1st of 4 par 5’s none measuring long, but this one will play more to it’s par, in part thanks to the dog leg right over water to the green, preventing all but the big hitters going for it in 2.
Then you get to the 1st of the par 3’s a long 197 yards into a stiff wind, but with a receptive green that slopes back to front.
The pick of the par 3’s at the 7th (close contest with the equally pretty 16th) follows another par 5, which in fairness is tight caused by trees creeping in from the left, but once past these the hole plays pretty straight forward.
The 7th plays over water at 134 yards to a raised green with bunkers front and left. The pin was tucked just past the front bunker, but if you play away from it, you could soon end up with your ball running off the green.
The pick of the front 9 for me was the 8th, a short risk/reward par 4 at 298 yards. With 2 brooks intersecting the fairway at 200 yards and 250-270 yards, you are faced with multiple options on where to lay up or go for it. Pretty looking hole as well.
The front 9 closes with a dog leg right, which can be shortened by taking a line over the right hand trees that fringe the fairway.
The back 9 starts with another hole with the odd tree interjecting into the driving line and fades to the right leaving another raised green with yes, plenty of contours.
The 11th is a straightforward par 3, followed by a short par 4 where the main danger is the fairway bunkers (but these can be driven) which narrow the hole and a loathe but shallow bunker in front of the green
I like the look of the 13th, another short par 4, where a drive over the bunkers leaves a short wedge to the green, which again has severe run off areas, so landing in the correct part of the green is crucial for a birdie or par.
The 14th and 17th are par 5’s both straight - the biggest challenge is the green on the 14th, where the pin was tucked on a small flat area which meant you had less than a 1/6th of the green to aim at.
The 15th has trees pushing in from the left, but your line should be over these, leaving another short iron into the green - the 1st one without bunkers, but has lovely little drumlin mounds in front of it.
And the 16th, a picturesque par 3, over water, with trouble to the right, woods to the left and rough behind.
The last hole is a bit of a let down, agreeing with previous reviewer comments - it has several mature oaks dotted to the left and almost into the fairway and then a rather innocuous green, which left me feeling a little flat.
Apart from the greens, the biggest challenge was the wind which was blowing strongly and given the open nature of much of the course, there was little to stop it swirling around. The course is certainly a mix of parkland and some woodland and very open in places (the area between the 10th and 17th in particular) but my playing partners felt it was more of a test today than the Hotchkin yesterday.
It all comes down to apples and pears - you can’t make a direct comparison, it all comes down to personal preference - you decide.
While i like your review of the Bracken, although i dont agree with some of it, that is all about opinion. What i do find baffling is trying to compare it with the Hodgkin somehow. There is no comparison at all, one is one of the best golf courses in UK and the other for me isnt even in the top ten in even Lincolnshire. One is a classic and the other is an American style course laid out on a rather featureless piece of land and for me has probably 5 or 6 good holes. One is very corporate and great for societies, the other is an absolute treat to play, the Bracken is not a treat at all. If you have a society then maybe the Bracken is a good choice, not too difficult off the tee and plenty of room on most holes. For me, the only comparison between the two courses is that they both have a brutal par 3 around 170 yards, thats it for me. I have played the Bracken in society games and i wont be rushing back for a game but i cant wait for my next round on the Hodgkin.
Thanks Steve, and that was the point I was trying to make; you can't directly compare the 2, although many people try to, mainly because they are at the same golf club. They are totally different, hence apples v pears. And i would also agree that for society golf it works well, but if you are having to choose playing one or the other it would be the Hotchkin all day long.
Hi Andy, sorry, i thought you were trying to compare them in some way, my apologies. They are chalk and cheese and while the Bracken is always kept in top condition i think people should be aware it is a second course and completely different characters.
Totally agree. We are on the same page.
Really great course in its own right with some tricky holes. My favourite was the par 5 third hole.
I enjoyed this just as much as its sister course and is a must for anyone wanting to play golf in the Lincolnshire area.
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.