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½ mile NE of Woodhall Spa
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The Hotchkin course at Woodhall Spa invariably fights with Loch Lomond and Sunningdale Old for the coveted position of “best inland golf course” in the British Isles. Originally, Harry Vardon laid out the course and it opened for play in 1905. Harry Colt, just before the Great War, made further modifications to the layout. But in the 1920s, the owner, Colonel S.V. Hotchkin, put the course through one last major redesign phase before the Hotchkin finally matured into its present layout. The English Golf Union purchased Woodhall Spa in 1995 for a reputed £8m and turned it into their headquarters.
An oasis in the heart of Lincolnshire. Set amongst glorious pine, birch and broom, this heathland course is an absolute delight to play. The sandy subsoil allows all-year-round golf, the springy turf making walking a real pleasure. Keep your ball in play and do your best to avoid the heather, gorse and bunkers. See if you can copy the feat of J.A. Wilson (8 h/cap) and his opponent L.D. Henshaw (12 h/cap). In 1982, Wilson holed in one at the 12th (a beautiful, long par three) but only managed a half because Henshaw also holed in one. Apparently they were hurrying their shots too because they had just been invited to play through. The four-ball standing behind the green were gobsmacked!
The Hotchkin is bunker heaven (or hell), notorious for its deep, cavernous sand traps. It is also helpful if you can hit the ball long and straight. Otherwise you will be presented with some very tough second shots. Woodhall Spa isn’t a tournament course, but it is supremely challenging and plays host to a number of distinguished national and international amateur competitions.
Many important matches have been decided on its famous 18th hole. This 540-yard par five finishing hole typifies what is so special about Woodhall Spa. If we can strike the ball with solidity off the tee and avoid the hazards, then we give ourselves a chance of scoring well. We can see the flag clearly in the distance but the drive is tight. We must land left of the sentry oak, but not too far left, otherwise we will be bunkered. We must be dead straight in order to find the crisp, sandy fairway and if we achieve all these things, and if we are a stout hitter, we may be tempted to go for the green with our second shot. It is tempting - the route to the green is visible but is protected by bunkers and there's a swale guarding its right flank. What can we say? “Go for it” perhaps?
The future of the Hotchkin was addressed in 2015 as there was serious concern about the poor condition of the bunkers, the encroachment of trees and the general more parkland feel of the layout. Tom Doak and his Renaissance Golf Design team were called in develop a plan that would see the course through the following twenty-five years of operation. In the architect's words: “Generally removing visual clutter so that the unique bunkering can dominate the views.”
Key areas to be tackled included the renovation of all the bunkers, the significant removal of trees and scrub, the restoration of heather and heathland characteristics, and the return of greens to their original dimensions.
The plan was to tackle six holes a year for three years, starting in December 2016. Tom Doak and his team carried out the shaping and the club’s in-house green keeping team finished the re-instatement work that was necessary.
Holes 7 to 11 and 13 were completed in phase 1, holes 5, 6, 12, 14, 16 and 17 in phase 2 and the remaining holes in phase 3. During the project, 43 new bunkers were constructed or re-introduced, three greens were moved and re-shaped, more than 30,000 square metres of turf was hand laid, 90,000 square metres of scrub cleared, and 10,000 trees cleared.
The journey to play this heathland gem is not easy for most visiting golfers, but the green fee is great value, especially if you are a member of an English golf club.
It was with high expectations that our group arrived on the first tee of the Hotchkin. A warm up round on the Bracken, a pint and a nice intro by the starter had us chomping at the bit.
As early as the second green I felt we were on a special course. The bunkering, mentioned by many of the reviewers here, is exceptional and demands constant attention and the spongy fairways are a joy. Melting a crisp 5-iron from the fairway of the 5th was worth the green fee alone.
The design and layout is a strategic test but equally just good fun. The course weaves you in different directions with the wispy, heathery rough defining each hole on the front 9 with trees shaping the holes on the back. You want to play well to do the holes justice.
Driving the ball well is a must (I didn’t) and if you can we felt there were good scores to be had. The greens weren’t that difficult in our opinion.
Overall there’s no doubt it’s a great course. Woodhall Spa is a decent little golf weekend break and worth a journey. Not sure if the global ranking is fully accurate if I’m honest but it doesn’t matter. My only real criticism is they need some better beer in the clubhouse.
Lucky to play this course, the natural architecture has stood the test of time. Fast and firm this place plays very similar to a links, with huge cavanous bunkers. Always in great condition and well worth the long journey to play
Woodhall has a big reputation these days so it’s natural to go into it expecting big things. I was a little underwhelmed, it lacks the grandeur and hills of some of its Surrey and Berkshire cousins, and I caught it at a time with bobbly, soft greens. I’m sure there’s a valid reason for that.
The bunkers certainly do live up to the hype. You will quickly learn that plotting your way around these is the key to scoring, even if it means turning a par 4 into a 5. The fairways are wide though, so it’s always tempting to open your shoulders.
The 5th might be the pick of the par 3s, with gnarly bunkers short-right and almost as deep bunkers back-left. It’s a real test for us right-handers. The 6th is then as long a par 4 as I’ve played, at 465 from the yellows. Some GPSs even have it down as a par 5.
The back 9 has a few more trees, none of which encroach too much. There also seem to be fewer bunkers on this part of the course. An exception is the short par 4 15th, with its green more or less an island thanks to the sand.
Overall I found Woodhall to be very good and consistent, but not worthy of such a high ranking. It feels a little overhyped because of its remote location and the Tom Doak effect, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it more in firmer conditions and with better greens.
Played it a couple of days ago too and agree that the greens were slow and bobbly, which was a shame. Otherwise I thought the course was in very good condition considering how much footfall it must get. The bunkers, especially the greenside ones, were beautiful to play out of and probably my favourite thing about the course.
I am delighted to have joined Woodhall Spa as a Country Member. 1 hour 45 min drive from Sheffield is worth every drop of petrol spent, and then some. This is a class track, ranked as a high as 54th in the World in some publications and fully deserving these lofty heights.
The work that Tom Doak has done is fantastic. The course is heathland perfection. The fairways are generous, but they run fast given the springy turf they are laid out over, but any slightly wayward drive or shot is rewarded by your next shot being out of the bunkers, which line every hole and surround every green with the only exception being the 16th.
The front 9, up to the half way house is more open than the back 9 which wends its way alongside native woodland, with more holes tree lined as a result. This adds a nice balance to the overall round, as you see buzzards (and fighter jets) above you.
I can see that some reviews have felt that the 13th and 14th are the weakest holes. I would argue that there isn't one weak hole on the course. The 13th probably just needs a little more interest around the green and the 14th is short for a par 5, but it does present a great scoring opportunity.
My favourite parts of the course are the fabulous 15th green, in a bowl surrounded by bunkers, it has distinct links like feel to it; the 12th hole, played slightly uphill to a raised narrow green surrounded by deep bunkers left and right; the clever par 3 5th, where the green is 2 tiered (not noticeable off the tee) with deep bunkers awaiting anyone failing to find the putting surface.
The understated golf clubhouse and friendly welcome are just what you want when coming to the home of England Golf.
If you haven't played here, make the journey, stay overnight in the local hotels and then play the Hotchkin again (or the Bracken if you fancy a change). You will not be disappointed.
Congrats on joining Andy! The course sounds fantastic and surely you’re going to have bags of fun there in the years to come. Your favourite course in England?
The Batman & Robin of Dutch Golf will be swooping in later this year once we extricate ourselves from the elaborate and not so easily escapable trap set by our arch-nemesis, The Corona. Will let you know what we think of #14 & #15 - KAPOW!
Thanks BB. It is such a class track. I haven't played Sunningdale yet, but based on the courses I play in England this is my favourite inland course without a doubt. It trumps Ganton and whilst it doesnt have the elevation changes as say Hollinwell, its class shines through. You will love it, Corona permitting, of course.
Thats a big turn around Andy from your review from prior to the changes, after the changes had been made. Its great that you have been back to sample the new changes and were so impressed you joined. It is a top top track and i agree 100% trumps Ganton in every way. Enjoy!
We played this in the heatwave in-between lockdowns last year and the course was unbelievable.
Woodhall Spa is probably the most challenging course I have played however it lures you in with a fairly easy start and gives you a false sense of confidence. The bunkers are some of the best I have ever played out of with plenty of sand enabling you to play the right shot you need to get out. The greens were larger than other courses I've played however they rolled superb and made you take a second glance when reading a putt.
The heather is unreal, a word of advise, take your medicine and take the shortest route out back to the fairway as it's a scorecard ruiner!
As a review on the course only it's probably a league below the likes of Birkdale but isn't far off and is definitely a top 10 course in England.
The hospitality and clubhouse lets the overall club down a little however the course speaks for itself and is a must for any serious golfer.
I feel a little guilty for not giving this a perfect 6 but I feel I need to save room in case I get to play Pebble Beach or Augusta!! I have been lucky enough to play many world class courses and the Hotchkin is as good as anything I have played....nothing compares to the feeling stood on the 1st tee at the old course at St Andrews or perhaps the 16th,17th and 18th at TPC Sawgrass but the Hotchkin is a joy to play that for me gets better every time I have the pleasure. it’s beauty is there in natural abundance ,genius by design and easy to walk, but with ferocious bunkering. Not only is it worthy of all the accolades it receives but it is incredibly priced for such a course of this stature. In addition the clubhouse is itself a very non pompous affair that has the feel of a professional yet welcoming club that is actually pleased you are there. Their man Glyn Roddy that runs their open events is a perfect example of how top clubs should operate.
Quite simply make the journey and play it , then look back and question why did you ever pay the £££ you did to play the other similar ranked courses when you could of been playing this!!
This is far off the beaten track but well worth the time taken to get there. It is a beautifully presented course with colourful heather and excellent bunkering, undoubtedly enhanced by the recent upgrading. It is very playable but the heather, trees and bunkers can easily lead to high scores if you are not on your game. If I was being picky it lacks the elevation changes of Sunningdale, Hollinwell or Hankley but despite that all of the holes are interesting and challenging. I’m very keen to play the course again and will be trying to find a way to fit it into another golf itinerary.
We played Woodhall Spa on a cold December day, starting in stunning sunshine but soon descending into overcast conditions. Unfortunately, the quality of our golf seemed to mirror that of the weather – starting out strongly but then taking a beating from this brute of a course.
The course starts out with a relatively gentle par four first but it is from the second onwards that the fun begins. The new bunkering that Tom Doak has put in is hugely impressive and the mixture of these and the plethora of heather make for a number of challenging tee shots.
There are some standout holes that will stick long in the mind – the third, sixth, eighth and ninth on the front nine are amongst some of the best I have ever played. The eleventh and twelfth on the back are very strong holes too.
However, we must have played the course on a ‘greenkeepers revenge’ day – the pin placements were incredibly difficult, all positioned in what we felt were slightly gimmicky spots. It would have been nice to know this going in as by the time we got to the thirteenth we were all struggling.
Overall, the Hotchkin is an incredible test of golf. The conditioning for the time of year was also excellent, albeit the greens had recently been treated. From reviews on this site and others, I feel like I ought to re-visit in the summer months as although a great tactical golfing test, it could not match St George’s Hill which we had played on the prior day for variety and playability.
You know you’re playing a special course when midway through the round your Fourball are discussing the best inland courses in the UK. For me, Woodhall Spa must be considered when it comes to that conversation. This is a fantastic golf course and well worthy of its inclusion in the World’s Top 100.
Firstly, l am a sucker for Heathland courses. I love how heather shapes holes; how pristine green fairways contrast the purple hue of the heather and how you invariably need to plot your way around. Woodhall Spa has all these and one extra defining attribute that sets it apart from most other courses on these shores, their bunkering. There are 111 bunkers at Woodhall, and some are gargantuan in size. All are rugged and natural looking and blend perfectly into their surroundings.
Woodhall plays as a traditional out and back, with the front 10 being much more open than the final 8, which plays through pine and birch. It’s hard to select standout holes as there are so many good ones, but the stretch of holes from the 3rd to the 9th is one of the best stretch of holes you can play in England. The 3rd is a beautiful Par 4 playing up to old ruins that sit behind the green. The 5th is a cracking short Par 3 with a wickedly contouring green. The 6th has a stunning cross bunker sitting just shy of the green, the 7th is a pretty dogleg right par 4 with heather all down the right hand side. The 8th another wonderful Par 3 with a green that falls away sharply at the front and the 9th an incredibly well designed Par 5 which plays over a wall of fairway bunkers.
Standout holes on the back 9 would be the fabulous Par 3 12th, a true Heathland one shot stunner and the short Par 4 15th with the green guarded by an army of bunkers. In fact across the course, I only found there to be 2 weak holes, which were the 13th and 14th. The course also finishes with a strong and (again) well bunkered 18th, which for anyone who reads my reviews knows, weak finishing holes on top courses are a continuing bugbear of mine.
This is one of the great heathland courses, in immaculate condition and played in ultimate seclusion. What’s not to like?!
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Whilst I never visited Woodall Spa before Tom Doak’s restoration, I have been lucky enough to play it 3 times since, as well as walking it a on a handful of occasions. From speaking to other golfers and looking at old photos, it is clear how successful the work that included tree removal and bunker renovations has been.
As a result the front nine has great scale where holes are dotted around amongst acres of heather. The vast heather mixed with huge bunkers gives the course a unique feel that is only simulated on a few other heathland courses in England.
The course roughly plays as an out and back, with the 4th, 5th, 12th and 15th holes being the only exceptions. 1 thru 4 are all very good par 4s, all with grand bunkering and interesting green sites. The two fairway bunkers on the 2nd, along with its greenside trap, and the fairway bunkers on the 3rd are particular standouts. What makes the bunkering so good at Woodhall I believe is a mix of size and ruggedness. They are huge, over 30 yards long and often more than 10ft deep. The edges are very rough and natural which helps them blend in with the heather and gorse.
7 is another very good par 4 which plays like a cape hole around a sea of heather, but it is the par 5s and 3s that steal the show on the front nine. Whilst 8 is a strong uphill one shotter where hitting the green is paramount, the 5th is arguably the best of the bunch. The heavily guarded and undulating green is cleverly angled much like the 12th at Augusta, forcing the player into hitting the perfect shot. In my opinion the 5th hole at WS is a par 3 you could play all day and never tire of, making it one of the best short holes in England.
6 and 9 are wonderful par 5s that have beauty and danger in spades. The bunkering left of the 6th green is gorgeous, and the giant cross-bunkers engulfed in heather on 9 are both strategic and beautiful.
Although it is strictly on the back nine, one could argue that the 10th is the final hole on the front. It is a brilliant short par 4 that takes you to the far corner of the property where you make the turn for the final stretch.
Whilst the back nine is at times more suffocating due to less tree removal, it still possesses all of the best features WS has to offer. The 11th is a stout par 4 that plays to an island fairway through a shoot of trees. The fairway is cut off some 100 yards before the green where bunkers, heather and rough await. You could argue it shares similarities with the famous 2nd hole at Pine Valley, and is a persona favourite of mine for this reason.
12 is the last of a set of superb par 3s. Measuring no more than 170 yards off the tips, you play marginally uphill to a green once again protected by deep bunkers. The bunker on the left was shallowed by Doak who considered it to be too penal, as it was once the depth of a double decker bus!
13 and 14 are potentially the weakest holes. A long 4 and short 5 respectively which on any other course would be considered strong holes. The 15th is an outstanding short par 4 with and overdose of greenside bunkers shielding a semi-punchbowl green, whilst I have a soft spot for 16 for no other reason than I love the look of the approach shot where you play to a green that sits in front of rhododendron bushes and tall pines, as if you were playing Swinley Forest.
17 is a good par 4 full of strategy and excellent bunkering, whilst 18 is a attractive par 5 where you must avoid the multitude of fairway bunkers to give yourself a chance of finishing with a birdie.
As well as being a world-class golf course, Woodhall Spa doesn’t charge hundreds for a round like you might think. Maybe because they are out of the way and not near too many other top courses, I’m not sure. The Hotchkin course might be the best value golf course in the UK and is a must play for all.