- +44 (0)1526 352511
19 miles SE of Lincoln
Contact in advance - handicap certificate required
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.”
I played with 3 others on 6th and 7th June. I have played here a few times before and try to get over on play when I can. On the first day it rained continuously and there were strong winds. The following day was dry and the wind was even stronger.
I see golfers agitating over whether the Hotchkin is better than some other course, or whether it deserves its ranking, as if these things matter. It has an understated charm and class that is magical. I am very lucky to have played at Turnberry, Birkdale, the Old Course and many others regarded as amongst the very best but I think this is my FAVOURITE course. Better than others? When courses are this good trying to separate them becomes meaningless.
As always the course was in magnificent condition. Despite the continuous heavy rain the bunkers had no standing water and surprisingly (to me) remained very playable. I found the deep bunkers on each of the short par threes and got out each time from the wet sand. On virtually any other course we would have been miserable given the conditions but cold and wet we still had fun. Having been here a few times I now know what I want to do on each hole but the challenge is to play each shot perfectly with a mistake likely costing two shots or more. The design is magnificent with options on every hole and infinite subtlety. It is as others have said a timeless classic course. Those who don't "get it" surely have no golfing soul.
When driving off the beaten track through the flat plains of Lincolnshire, you do start to wonder how this vast area of farmland could be home to one of the country’s best courses, but when arriving at Woodhall Spa, you find yourself amongst a green golfing oasis. Playing the Hotchkin is a pleasure; stretches of heather line the perimeters of the fairways creating an excellent challenge for the visiting golfer with superb routing throughout.
Naturally, no review of Woodhall Spa would be complete without mentioning the bunkers. The cavernous bunkers offer the highlight of the round and probably represent the best bunkering I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the UK. This is best highlighted by the short 5th hole where ten-foot deep bunkers create an island green, one of which I had the displeasure of entering leading my playing partner to think I’d gone missing for a few seconds. On the longer holes, keeping the ball on the fairway comes at a premium, and when combined with some 180+ yard carries to hit the fairway, shorter hitters will struggle to score.
Whilst a memorable day’s golf will be enjoyed by most at Woodhall Spa, it does fall just short of golfing perfection. The green undulations and contours are a little on the subtle side for my tastes and when compared to other fine heathland courses such as Woking, are a slight let down.
I do also admit to having a bias for courses that offer an element of rise and fall, of which The Hotchkin offers none, but despite this it’s still undoubtedly a very fine course. The course improvement work by Tom Doak and his team will considerably enhance the layout. The back 9 needs additional tree clearance and heather regeneration, but going by the newly created area of wasteland found on the right of the dogleg 7th hole, the course is only going to improve its already glowing reputation. By 2022, I expect the course will well deserve its status as one of the absolute best courses in the UK, but it’s not quite hitting these heights for me in its current state. A solid 5-ball rating.
Played the Hotchkin course on an overcast, relatively calm April day. Course conditioning was excellent and the staff was friendly and helpful. The Hotchkin fully earned its status as a classic, must-play layout. The degree of difficulty was significant, but not to the point of discouraging an occasional bold shot. Fairways are the "right" width in terms of requiring some precision off the tee (often carrying 100-150 yards of gorse), but not overly punitive. Fairway and greenside bunkering is plentiful, but again reasonable. Greens were in great shape, holding well-struck irons and providing straightforward "reads". Petwood Hotel is a great option in this town.
This course has always been highly rated internationally, but it took me 3 plays to appreciate its many subtle features. Yes, the greens are fast, the bunkers frightening, but you can plot a way around this course and it doesn't involve excessive use of the driver. Like Silloth and Dornoch, its off the beaten track but worth the journey all the same. The course has a number of outstanding short par 4's, which although short require accurate placement of tee and approach. This is best shown by the 15th., played slightly uphill...you need to avoid the bunker right and then play a wedge to an elevated green surrounded by bunkers. The hole funnels in slightly and the bunker short of the green makes you think its a shorter shot than you think...play to the yardages here, and you won't go wrong. The 10th also requires an accurate tee shot to avoid heather and bunkers,and the sloping green needs to receive an accurate approach wedge shot. These short par 4's can offer a birdie or wreck your card, and what few courses offer is a challenge on every hole...Woodhall Spa offers this better than just about any other UK course
Set near Sherwood Forest off the beaten path, Woodhall Spa might be the most underrated course ranked by golf magazines. The idyllic setting in the woods is quintessential England. People walking their dogs through the property, the smell of wood burning fireplaces nearby, a gentle mist in the air. Woodhall Spa has only three par three holes but taken together they may represent the best collection of par threes on any course in the world and the bunkers are peerless, as deep as you will see on any golf course. This is bunkering of the penal variety. There’s a bit of magic in the air at Woodhall that is difficult to define. The routing is world-class as is the artfulness of the design. The antithesis of a lot of courses built today, this is golf of the throwback variety. Bring it on.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Took the drive to Woodhall Spa on the basis that it was a great course.....we were lucky with the weather but even luckier to be able to play such a wonderful course!!!
The bunkers live long in the memory, but the whole course oozes class without being snobby etc and as for value for money.....you will not beat this place!
Highly recommend everyone experiences this!
Woodhall Spa has 36 holes: the Hotchkin Course and the Bracken Course, with the former being the older and superior layout of the two, and the focus of this review. The Hotchkin Course is a fine test of one’s golfing ability, largely due to the very deep, and extremely large bunkers found scattered throughout the layout. These enormous bunkers can be found flanking the edges of fairways – often lurking amongst beautiful patches of heather and long grass – as well as fronting or surrounding many of the green complexes.
The bunkers are obviously the headlining act in the course’s defence. It is the visually striking yet penal roughs, and large greens - which can make three-putting a real possibility – that both play solid supporting roles. Additionally, forced carries over heather off many tees - some being upwards of 200 yards from the back markers - would no doubt intimidate the average golfer and definitely add to the difficulty of the layout.
All of this boils down to the fact that in order to score well at Woodhall Spa, one must drive the ball well, and do so all day.
In singling out some of the course’s finer holes - depending on your taste - there is plenty to choose from.
The par threes are particularly challenging, and as a set of one-shot holes, are some of the most unforgiving I have encountered. Even from the back markers the 5th and 12th play at 148 and 176 yards respectively, meaning that many golfers will only require a short to mid iron. However missing the green on either of these two holes is likely to result in an extremely difficult recovery shot from one of the very deep greenside bunkers that surround the respective putting surfaces. Playing at 209 yards from the tips, the 8th is the by far the longest, and rounds out the trio of fine one shot holes. The tee shot is slightly uphill, and must carry a lone cross bunker in the fairway, sited some thirty yards short of the green. Three more bunkers flank either side of the large green to the front – two on the left and one on the right – ready to swallow up anything that strays too far off a decent line.
But there is far more to this course than simply some challenging short holes. The biggest strength of the Hotchkin Course for me would have to be the fact that it possesses a number of great holes spread over a variety of lengths.
Of the great par fours, the pick for me is the 338 yard 10th, where your drive must skirt two fairway bunkers with the first being sited on the left, the second a little further up on the right. This hole dog-legs from left to right, and it is a drive that splits the two fairway bunkers while still slightly favouring the left-hand side that is best rewarded by a short approach into the open-fronted green. The safe route is to play out to right and short of the second fairway bunker, though from here you must approach the green at an angle that shortens the depth of the green considerably, whilst also avoiding a pair of bunkers sited short right and two more long and left. To keep the approach interesting the green falls away from you, ensuring your approach requires deft judgement in length to get the ball close for a birdie putt.
If I had one slight bit of criticism of the Hotchkin Course it would be the greens, which despite being on the larger side of average, are not very strongly contoured. In a perfect world they might possess some stronger slopes to make them more interesting. However, given the significant challenges that one faces in reaching these surfaces in regulation, I gladly accept their mild contouring as being a fair trade-off that likely keeps the course from being too punishing for the average golfer (myself included). In fact it’s reasonable to suggest that the gently sloping putting surfaces would be a warmly welcomed respite by most who play here. Their size still makes three-putting a real possibility anyway, so let’s not split hairs.
The Hotchkin Course at Woodhall Spa is a fine layout that has well and truly earned its reputation for possessing strategic challenge, beauty, and deep, intimidating bunkers. If you’re not driving well, I’d recommend you steer clear until such time as you are. For everyone else, golf here in the summer is absolute bliss…
This review is an edited extract from my Blog titled: An Architect Abroad. The full review can be found by clicking here along with photographs taken of the course. Please also note that my rating of the course here has been done specifically against the other courses which I visited on that trip, many of which rank very highly in the top 100 listed on this website for the United Kingdom. For that reason some ratings of courses may be lower than that given by other reviewers.