Home to the National Golf Centre and England Golf, the governing body for the amateur game in this country, Woodhall Spa has the luxury of two courses.
It is the famed Hotchkin that grabs most of the headlines, and rightly so, because this is undoubtedly one of the finest golf courses in the British Isles and for many the ultimate inland golfing experience.
The Hotchkin is a wonderfully surreal place to enjoy a round of golf. Here you will find glorious seclusion on an inspiring piece of land that was touched by JH Taylor, Harry Vardon and Harry Colt but was ultimately shaped, through the endless work and love of the property, by Colonel Stafford Vere Hotchkin.
Hotchkin retained the Colt routing but remodelled many of the holes by moving greens and tees and adjusting hazard locations. The formidable bunkers that the course is notorious for today are due in the main to work carried out by the prominent member who effectively saved the club by offering them the present site in 1902. It was fittingly named after him once the new course at Woodhall Spa, the Bracken, was opened in 1995.
The course has many admirers amongst the ranking fraternity and regularly features near the very top of not just national lists but also as one of the leading courses in the world.
The fast running course introduces you gently to heathland golf of the highest quality at the modest opening hole before raising the temperature gradually over the next three holes; all fine par fours. The second and third head in the same direction as the first before you make an about turn at the fourth.
There is plenty of width at the opening quartet of holes but should you wander off line some of the deepest and most intimidating fairway bunkers you will ever see are your likely fate and where extraction, rather than advancement, is overwhelmingly the main priority. Many of the green complexes also feature cavernous bunkering unlike anything you will see elsewhere; it is not uncommon to be unable to see any part of the flagpole when playing from them!
At Woodhall Spa the bunkers can rightly be called 'hazards' and, unlike at many other courses, must be avoided at all costs. Some of them are akin to a prison and finding them is the same as being handed a life sentence.
After the relative straightness of the first three holes the dog-leg nature of the fourth comes as a pleasing surprise. The golfer can decide how brave he wants to be by taking on a mass of heather down the left with a fierce looking bunker also to contend with on that side. However, as is often the case on the Hotchkin it is conservatism and patience that is the order of the day, at least if one is to score well.
There are only three one-shotters on the course and as you might expect they feature the deepest bunkering. The first time visitor won’t know about the hazards that lie in wait on all sides at the 148 yard fifth which features a long but narrow green because they only become visible as you walk towards what is effectively an island green. The eighth plays longer at around the 200 yard mark but the hazards are no less severe whilst the 12th has the most famous of all sand traps, gigantic in proportion and must be seen to be believed.
It may sound like that the course is quite penal but it is actually very strategic in nature. At times this is quite subtle, for example at the third there is a definite advantage of being on the right-side of the fairway as opposed to the left whilst at others the options are more pronounced. This is certainly the case at the three shortish par fours on the back nine. The 10th, 15th and 17th will tempt bigger hitters to try and get as close to the green as possible but usually the sensible play from the tee is to hit a shot that will leave your favourite yardage to the green.
Meanwhile, the par fives, four of them all told in the par of 73 from the whites, all offer variety and ask the golfer to work the ball both ways but these holes are not the strength of the course. In fact I would say the weakest hole on the course is the 18th which works far better as a lomg par four as it is from the yellow tee box.
I personally love the opening ten holes of the Hotchkin at Woodhall Spa. I would rate this as amongst the most surreal and pleasurable golf you will ever play. The open and far-reaching heathland is a joy to behold and where the purple heather seems to be that little bit richer in colour than elsewhere, the firmness of the fairways that touch tighter and the greens that smidgen truer. Heavenly golf.
From the 11th hole onwards the nature of the course changes and although my preference is for the front nine the inward holes arguably feature some of the strongest and most compelling holes. The course tightens, a smidgen too much for me, and there is a more isolated and woodland feel to the closing stretch; pine, birch and gorse abound. The 11th and 13th in particular are strong par fours, both stretching to around 450 yards from the back markers, and are potential card-wreckers.
To score well at this 7,000+ yard course one must be long and straight off the tee, especially the latter because being ‘in play’ is essential. But it’s not all about length as this profoundly complex layout proves on many occasions. It may not wow you with visually dramatic holes from each tee box, the relative lack of changes in elevation sees to that, but the Hotchkin is more than the sum of its individual pieces. Much more.
Everything about the Hotchkin oozes quality; it has that indescribable touch of class that only the crème de la crème of golf courses possess. The design and absorbing nature of the holes, the routing of the course, the unique bunkers, the quality of turf and the pureness of the greens all help create an unforgettable experience.
Meanwhile, the Bracken course provides a contrasting challenge to the Hotchkin. On this more modern layout you will find large undulating greens and water hazards the main obstacles to putting a good score together.
Donald Steel, one of Britain’s foremost golf course architects of the modern era, has created an interesting routing that has the majority of the back-nine inside the outer front-nine. The terrain that the course is played over is a pleasant mix of woodland and more arable ground that is habitat to a variety of wildlife.
The bunkering certainly isn’t as severe and at times the fairways are more generous but some of the holes are also tree-lined and require even more accuracy than the Hotchkin. The Bracken is contemporary in nature and complements its elder sibling nicely.
The beauty of having two courses is that Woodhall Spa becomes an ideal destination for players seeking a short break. With the contrasting variety of both courses a big draw and an overnight stay in the Edwardian town of Woodhall Spa, literally on the doorstep, it’s no wonder so many serious golfers flock to the heart of Lincolnshire to play and stay here.
The Club also run several open meetings throughout the season which represent superb value for money and usually sell out very quickly. Of all the true great courses in the UK the Hotchkin must surely be the most accessible, affordable and best value of them all.
NB: A visit in February 2019 to see the ongoing renovation work by Tom Doak has had a vast improvement on many of the holes - especially the previously claustrophic back-nine - and I look forward to returning once everything is completed.
Copt Heath is a very fine parkland golf course that requires precision, plotting and a deft touch around the slick greens.
The Blue is a mix of American-style design and traditional English parkland. It's an unusual combination which makes the most of the terrain available. It was designed by Simon Gidman and opened in 1994.