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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.
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.
Hi David, I think you need to revisit it, the variety of the par 4s is superb, especially if you think of difference between front and back. Just think about contrast between back to back par 4's, the 6th (par 5 of backs, par 4 of standard), long and straight, followed by the 7th sharp dog leg which offers a great risk reward choice. There is just a great mix of par 4's some long, some short 15 320 yards but heavily protected by bunkers surrounding it, 17 at 330, one the longer hitters can driver with a perfect draw but the penalties for a slight stray shot are huge. Maybe you played it on a bad day, but the mix of holes, lengths, the challenge, asking something different of every tee, for me fantastic.