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19 miles SE of Lincoln
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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?
It is definitely worth making the trip to play this gem and the green fee is tremendous value for money too (especially if you are a member of an English golf club). And remember - the Hotchkin is undoubtedly one of the premier inland courses in the whole of the British Isles. Can you afford not to play it?
In 2016 Tom Doak was hired to advise Woodhall Spa on a development plan that includes tree clearance and “generally removing visual clutter so that the unique bunkering can dominate the views”. Additionally bunker faces will be reconstructed to ease maintenance. The schedule of works was due to be completed by 2022, but we received an update from Tim, a Woodhall Spa member, in February 2017:
"The work Tom Doak is doing has been speeded up and should be completed by 2019. All bunkers are being remodeled, many that had disappeared are being reinstated and a small number of obsolete ones are being removed. Huge areas of undergrowth have been cleared so that the feel of an old fashioned heath with far reaching views across the course are being brought back. Although only holes 7,8,9,10,11 and 13 have been done so far, the changes are fantastic and when completed will elevate Woodhall further from its already lofty position. Some of the holes (still to be completed) will have significant work done to the greens and also the position of the tees."
Tim contacted us again in February 2018: "“The second phase of the three-year renovation program at Woodhall Spa is nearly complete. The changes this year are to holes 5, 6, 12, 14, 16 and 17. The changes to the two par fives (6 and 14) are particularly dramatic. Many trees have been removed. Many old bunkers have been reinstated and the visual impact of these changes are striking.”
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.
Put simply, this is golfing heaven and an annual pilgrimage to Woodhall Spa should be on everyone's list. The place is relatively small, but oozes class and tradition. The Hotchkin is always in great nick with golfing turf to die for. The renovation seems to have made it wider. Not so, it just means if you miss the fairway you take your chances with the heather.
We played both courses in a day starting at 8:30 and were finished by 4:30. Unusually and maybe recklessly, we went for the Hotchkin first. It's always a nervous first shot as you don't want to duff it at the home of English golf. However, with two down the middle the friendly starter looked suitably confident we could manage this course.
The first is stroke index 17 with room out to the right but bunkers on the green left and right to gather a timid second. 2, 3 and 4 start to give you a taste of what Woodhall is about. Decisions to be made on the second hole. Hit short of the bunker and leave a devilish 180-200 yard uphill second to a green surrounded by deep bunkers or blast over two big fairway bunkers to leave 150. The dog leg 4th encourages you hit right off the tee but it leaves you a longer second to a well guarded green.
The first par 3, the 5th introduces you to deeper bunkers. At only 140 yards, the green is narrow and finding the putting surface difficult. Hit a full shot and back yourself to keep the ball on the green. If not, you will be lucky not to find sand.
The next two par 4s need a straight drive and the confidence to fly bunkers with the second shot if you want to hit the middle of the green.
The 8th is a beautifully designed 180 yard par 3, which needs a solid shot to into the prevailing wind to find a raised green. Sand awaits at both sides to catch a miss hit long or medium iron.
The 9th is a par five, but a good drive should allow you the chance to negotiate the fairway bunkers to give yourself a wedge in to a small green.
The key to the front nine is hit the fairway and make strong decisions on your second. You can either lay up short and rely on your chipping and putting or behave and fly those front bunkers.
The back nine starts with a simple par 4. Simple in terms of length but position is key of the tee to leave a wedge into another narrow green. The 11th allows you open your shoulders, but hit the centre of the green. Left or right will see a tricky chip and put for par. The 13th is the longest par 4 and the drive is the trickiest on the course as deep bunkers guard the dog leg. A long iron over cross bunkers could see you run up on to the green.
In-between the two 4s is the par 3 12th. A narrow green with bunkers DEEP bunkers down both sides will test your commitment to a short iron.
The short par 5 14th should yield a par, if you find the fairway off the tee.
The par 4 15th and 17th create dilemmas off the tee. How much do you leave for your second shots into very narrow and well protected greens?
The last, a left to right dogleg par 5 at 480 yards into the wind needs a strong tee shot and second to avoid well placed and plenty of fairway bunkers. This could leave 50 yards in and a birdie opportunity to complete the round.
For medium to high handicappers, you can be overawed by the course and focus to much on the cavernous bunkers. Be confident and be straight off the tee. There are good scores and memorable birdie opportunities to be had, but you need to plot your way round carefully to avoid the sand. You will leave with bittersweet memories. Memories of great course, but sad that as you are not a member it might be a while before you return.
Woodhall Spa is a wonderfully presented course that will challenge every facet of your game, especially your ability to think your way around a golf course. You’ll need every club in your bag and the ability to craft different shots with each of them. It’s a such a fun and fair test of golf. To be honest, there’s not much more to say. Love it.
Absolutely gorgeous course and one to play for the intelligent golfer. It was refreshing to play a course when you had to think carefully about your shot selection, taking a driver and whacking it wont work.
There are some daunting bunkers should you find them, which you will.
The greens are fantastic and ran very well.
This was a little gem in the area and well worth playing 3 rounds.
A highly rated course fully deserving of its ranking. Fantastic layout, played in 40+mph winds which made it a brutal test of golf. Beautiful looking holes, where everything is laid out in front of you on the vast majority. There is the odd hidden landing area, and semi blind green, mainly obscured by strategic bunkering. Go off line at your peril, heather grabs your ball, go wider into deeper rough and it's gone. Every club in your bag gets a thorough test at some stage of the round. The greens were consistent and with subtle (and not so subtle) borrows meaning we holed very few longer putts. A wonderful course that will hopefully be kinder (less breezy) on our return.
"You haven't seen anything yet, wait until the 12th", exclaimed our playing partner as I appeared as a mere speck against the backdrop of a giant dune in front of the 4th green at Woodhall Spa.
I was rather chuffed that I managed to send my ball up almost vertically to land within 10 foot of the pin. If I had sunk the putt, it would have been the best sand save of my life.
However, my adventure had nothing on the tales regaled by our delightful playing partners in a mixed open at the home of English Golf.
While playing a previous foursome on the aforementioned 12th, the chap had dumped his ball into the deep cavern and his wife had torn a knee ligament trying to heave it out!
Yes, Woodhall Spa's sand can certainly be a score wrecker or even prompt a hospital visit.
One of the favourite descriptions of the famous Hotchkin course is as 'a great test of golf.' I presume that the test is to avoid sand and heather in order to preserve sanity as well as build a decent score.
Both are devilish from the opening hole onwards, lurking menacingly to suck in errant shots or even ones which are initially thought to be accurate.
Of course, both Mrs W and I discovered our fair share but, on occasion, it would have been better to find ourselves with a good lie in the sand than the tufty stuff in which many of the bunkers are submerged.
Off the yellow tees, the Hotchkin is not an especially long course and holes can be conquered with accuracy off the tee and smart placement with shots into the greens.
The par-five 9th demonstrated a classic example of what can go right and wrong. My drive was short, so I tried to blast a three-wood over the giant bunker which stretches across the fairway. Big mistake. Three duffs later my hole was over. Fortunately, Mrs W showed how it can be conquered with a straight long drive, a meaty three-wood and a five iron which drifted in from the right and within ten feet of the pin.
I had a similar moment of glory on the par-five 13th when I landed my second shot in the centre of the green and recorded a birdie.
Ok, we played in near-perfect conditions but The Hotchkin rewarded concentration and the occasional bit of bravery.
However, even though the greens were far from their slickest, we struggled to interpret their subtleties - thus, a very good score became out of reach because of too many three-putts.
Oh, and because we struggled to avoid sand on the run-in.
This couldn't be much of a surprise on the short par-four 14th whose green is protected by bunkers which are akin to sentries at a fortified castle.
And then there is the 18th - our only no score. A dramatic hole which seems to have sand as far as the eye can see. We followed the lead of those who have found beaches popular during the Covid crisis and found five of them between us!
We were told by our playing partners that The Hotchkin had not been in as good condition as they had expected. I confess I did not find it as beguiling as St Enodoc was on our recent visit because I enjoy dramatic backdrops to golf holes.
However, we did have a thoroughly enjoyable round and, like many before us, we would thoroughly recommend playing here.
Any course that is consistently ranked in world top 100 lists is always going to increase your own expectation levels going into your first round there. This was certainly the case at Woodhall Spa- for somewhere in England I hadn’t heard a great deal about what made the Hotchkin course so good, or seen lots of photos of special holes.
Woodhall Spa completely met my expectations, and some. Driving in through the Lincolnshire countryside you wouldn’t expect there to be an expanse of sand that gives the course it’s firm playing characteristics, and makes the many large deep bunkers sustainable.
It’s a very flat piece of land, but the bunkering is so spot on that it makes the course extremely memorable. Every shot has to be considered strategically- off the tee there is always decisions to be made, and certain misses round the green can signal complete death for a golfer’s scorecard.
You start to realise the subtlety going on early in your round, for example the 3rd is a blind tee shot, but wiley golfers will realise that they had a glimpse of the 3rd fairway from the 2nd green. The course plays very firm and the bunkers are basically cut into the side of greens, and although I haven’t experienced Melbourne Sandbelt golf yet, I would expect this to be the UKs closest version to it.
An example of the trouble always lurking is on the short par 4 4th, where I hit Driver into a greenside bunker, but was never making less than a bogey because of being so out of place. The 5th is a downhill par 3 with the green sloping away from you, making it very hard to hold the green.
Every hole is great in its own right, but I particularly enjoyed the closing stretch. 15 has a epic green, and forces players to lay up because of heather and bunkering crossing the fairway short of the green. 17 is a brilliant short par 4, where the closer the player gets to certain fairway bunkers, the better angle they will have to the green (I hit 7 iron off this par 4 tee!). The 18th has 23 bunkers on it alone, and can play as a relatively short par 5 if bunkers are missed due to the firm terrain, but as with the rest of the course, it only takes a slight mistake for the player to be massively punished.
I can’t help but feel the Hotchkin course doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves with its location being slightly out the way from other golfing hotspots, but it is well worth a visit if you ever get the chance, and with the twilight rate being offered, it is also brilliant value.