LOCATION: Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, England
ARCHITECT: Original layout by Harry Vardon. Revisions by Harry Colt, with final adjustments made by Colonel S.V. Hotchkin – whom after which the course is named.
PAR: 73 S.S.S. RATING: 75 LENGTH: 7,084 yards
DATE INSPECTED / PLAYED: Friday 20th June 2014
Tucked away in the quaint little resort village after which it is named, the Woodall Spa Golf Club is laid out amongst a forest of mature pines and birch that give it a wonderful sense of isolation from the outside world. In fact its location is probably somewhat to its own detriment. Despite being home to England’s National Golf Centre, with no major roads taking you there, finding Woodhall Spa can be a bit of a mission in it’s self. However for those that are willing to make the journey to Lincolnshire in search of good golfing grounds, your efforts will be well rewarded with a round on this beautiful inland layout.
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 is effectively an out-and-back layout, with the first ten holes making their way to the far north-east corner of the property before turning back to the south west, with the final eight holes heading homeward. However, despite a plan view of the course depicting a rather linear routing, it feels anything but. On both nines there are several holes that switch back in the opposite direction, and as a result there is enough change in direction to keep things interesting throughout the round. In fact the routing actually has a golfer playing in pretty much all directions on the compass throughout their round without necessarily being aware of it. This is somewhat due to many holes having a sense of enclosure and isolation – courtesy of the surrounding landscape.
Additionally, the clever routing does a wonderful job of masking the one weakness of the site – a distinct lack of change in elevation. The course is laid out over what can only be described as very flat terrain, which is not surprising given its location. Despite this, best use seems to have been made of what little change in elevation there is across the site with a number of holes either rising or falling gently. The best examples of this would be the two par threes on the front nine, being the 5th and 8th holes. The former plays slightly downhill from a raised tee box (making club selection difficult in the wind), while the latter rises softly from tee to green – just enough to make the tee shot that little bit more intimidating, whilst at the same time improving the hole’s attractiveness.
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. In fact these bunkers have the unofficial coveted title of being the most ferocious of any inland course in England, which is no small feat considering what you encounter on other testing layouts such as Ganton Golf Club, located a few hours drive to the north. 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.
Upon first inspection its easy to see why the course is renowned for its bunkering. It is definitely the most severe I’ve seen in terms of their size and depth: the sheer (near vertical) depth of the bunkers – including those in the fairways – makes them extremely penal. And with just over one hundred of them in total scattered throughout the course, they can be somewhat hard to avoid. Should you find one of these nasty hazards, it is likely that you will not be able to make a full swing on the preferred line of play and will have to hit out either sideways or possibly backwards, costing you at least one full stroke. The majority of the bunkers are effectively large pits with steep, grassed edges. Many of the fairway bunkers are well camouflaged by the long grass and heather at their edges, making you forget that they are there. This is clever as it also helps achieve two further important goals: assisting the course to merge seamlessly with the surrounding landscape that abuts each hole, whilst simultaneously adding to the scenic beauty of the layout.
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.
Despite the penal nature of the bunkers and roughs, the fairways are usually on the generous side and therefore have sufficient width to allow for some inaccuracy off the tee without immediately penalizing a player. However given the narrow width of the adjacent short rough, and the stark transition into the adjoining outer roughs – in combination with the severe nature of the bunkering – the penalty for overly errant shot-making is as clear as the definition between the intended playing surfaces and those areas abutting them. In other words, the erratic-hitting golfer is generally given sufficient room to negotiate their way from tee to green, though the penalty for failing to do so is at times, extremely harsh.
The course opens with a relatively gentle par four to help ease you into your round, with a wide fairway to drive into, the shallowest bunkers found anywhere on the course and a benign green. Combined, these features give you a great chance to post an opening par four and build some confidence. However don’t be fooled by the soft start, as the gloves come off straight away at the 2nd, with the next three holes being demanding par fours that all measure over 400 yards, with the 3rd and 4th holes requiring blind and semi-blind tee shots respectively over patches of heather. As a result you soon come to learn that for all its beauty and peaceful serenity, the Hotchkin Course is a stern and unrelenting test of golf.
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.
To make it all the more interesting, all of the bunkers on these three holes are essentially blind from the tee, which can lull you into a false sense of security when sizing up your tee shot. Without a course guide in hand, had it not been for some friendly advice from the starter I certainly would have been oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead for an errant tee shot.
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. There is a 63-yard difference between the shortest and longest of the four par fives: 521 versus 584, making the latter a true three-shotter for most, while there is a 149-yard gap between the short par four 15th (playing at just 321 yards), compared to the monstrous 7th, which stretches to 470 from the tips! This ensures there is a good mix of short, medium and long par fours, and with that sort of variety in length, I’d be surprised if you didn’t give most clubs in the bag a turn during 18 holes here.
The three short par fours can all be found on the back nine, being the 10th, 15th and 17th. From a strategic point of view these holes are some of the best in the layout and probably my favourite. While there always appears to be a preferred side of the fairway from which to approach each green, these holes rightly go a step further and ask the golfer to weigh up the value of length versus position from the tee. In each instance the fairway is protected by one or two cleverly sited bunkers, with plenty of mown grass to hit into should you take the safe route and lay up short of them. If one chooses to use the driver, they will find the fairway narrowing considerably as you move past these bunkers, placing a premium on accuracy. In each instance, should you successfully play your ball to the correct portion of the fairway then you will be rewarded with a second shot that provides either an open-fronted approach with no bunkers to carry, a clearer view of the putting green, or both.
The pick of these 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 favouring the left-hand side of the fairway 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 things 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, 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.
In summary, the Hotchkin Course at Woodhall Spa is a fine layout that has well and truly earned it’s reputation for possessing strategic challenge, beauty, and deep, intimidating bunkers. If you’re not driving the ball well, I’d recommend you steer clear until such time as you are. For everyone else, golf here in the summer is absolute bliss…
COURSE IMAGES: Please click on any one of the images below to load a slide show of photographs of the golf course.
NEXT COURSE REVIEW: Notts Golf Club (Hollinwell)