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Woodhall Spa

Yardage
7080/6519
Par
73/71
SSS
75/73
Built
1903
Architect(s)
Harry Vardon, Harry Colt, Colonel Hotchkin, Donald Steel, Tom Doak.
Nature:
Flat heathland championship running-course with heather and deep bunkers.
Location/Address:
on B1191 from centre of Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. LN10 6PU
https://www.woodhallspagolf.com/
Secretary
Richard Latham
Telephone
01526 352511
Professional
Neil Harvey
Green Keeper
Sam Rhodes
Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Various
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£99 - 2020

Review

Colonel Hotchkin

Colonel Stafford Vere Hotchkin MP, Justice of the Peace and major landowner around Woodhall Spa (1876 to 1953) became the benefactor and landlord of Woodhall Spa Golf Club from 1903 and then the owner and course architect from 1919.

Beneficent dictators when they work well create great golf courses and this is what has happened in this instance.

This fine heathland course was later named ‘The Hotchkin’ after the English Golf Union (EGU) acquired the site from the Colonel’s son Neil in 1995.

Harry Vardon

Harry Vardon (six times Open Champion and a member of the great triumvirate with James Braid and JH Taylor who dominated pro golf in Edwardian times) was invited in 1903 to lay out the original course and work commenced on developing the mainly sandy, quite flat heathland area.

Harry Colt then became involved just before the Great War, lengthening the course to take account of the ‘bounding Billy’ ball’s greater distance and taking some holes out into the woods to the north of the sand-based heathland.

One can readily see that these holes fourteen to seventeen are set out on clay as is the new ‘Bracken’ parkland course designed by Donald Steel in 1996, because their fairway agronomy contains higher levels of annual meadow grass (Poa annua) whereas the well draining heathland holes have predominantly firm, fast-running fescue/browntop bent fine grasses.

Course mao showing geological boundary between clay and sands. Click to enlarge

Thousands of years ago when the glaciers receded from what is today Lincolnshire they left a distinctive geology of boulder clay abutting the sands and gravels running through this area and today is clearly seen on the dogleg seventh hole where the first part of the fairway lies on clay and the second on sand.

The Colonel himself became a respected golf course architect, remodelling some six courses in South Africa in 1927/8 and he formed a partnership with C.K.Hutchinson and Sir Guy Campbell in the 1920s, who designed a number of UK courses including Ashridge and West Sussex.

The Colonel, it is said, re-modelled almost every green complex, rather as John Low and Stuart Paton did at Woking, taking his time over the period of the 1920/30s.

He stated as part of his design ethos that “Every golf hole, as far as possible, should be a picture unto itself, so that the golfer’s mind is concentrated on the actual hole he is playing”.

The eighth green

He achieved an individual character for every hole apart from perhaps the rather ordinary first.

We can be thankful to Richard Latham for his 2004 coffee-table sized book on the history and design of The Hotchkin that captures for posterity, along with Eric Hepworth’s brilliant photography, the character of the course, much lauded around the world as one of the finest inland running heathlands.

Sir Michael Bonallack OBE in his foreword to Latham’s book sums up FineGolf’s view exactly: “Colonel Hotchkin’s views on architecture are perfectly exemplified in the design of his course at Woodhall Spa. Golf was originally a natural game, in the sense that the architect blended the course into existing surroundings, making use of natural features and contours that happened to be on the site, but not concentrating on making one really spectacular hole to the possible detriment of a number of others. How I hate the modern term ‘signature hole’. The great architects designed eighteen holes equally memorable, albeit for different reasons.”

Sir Henry Cotton

Sir Henry Cotton in 1940 commented: “I like the course very much; it can be put down as one of the leading courses in the country of its type, and is an example of what intelligent golf architecture can produce, for looking at some photos of the course taken thirty years ago, I can see that Colonel Hotchkin’s artistic hand has been very busy making uninteresting flat land into the most natural looking of golf courses”.

While quoting significant people who can be trusted, let us add Bernard Darwin in 1927: “the best and most charming course I have ever seen.” And again, Henry Longhurst in 1935 “It is, I think, the best course, using best in the most comprehensive sense, that I have played on in Britain.”

Par three 8th in center of 1935 aerial photo.

Latham’s book chronicles that there were no design changes from 1935 to 2004 but as shown in multiple photos there was a lack of trees (read article on trees) across the open heath in 1935 and by 2004 self-seeded silver birch, gorse and undergrowth were encroaching across the course along with planted pine becoming over-grown.

Tom Doak

It was only after 2015 when it was decided to invite Tom Doak, the American ‘minimalist’ golf course architect who designed The Renaissance next to Muirfield in East Lothian, to do a review, that the Club summoned up the confidence to make the change of returning the course to the style of how Hotchkin had left it before the Second World War.

Over the last three years the in-house greenkeeping team has transformed the course with over 10,000 trees being removed along with some new bold bunkering.

This has allowed greater sunlight penetration and wind-flow to some of the greens and will help the greenkeeping team return them to fine grasses and true heathland characteristics through conservation greenkeeping.

The fifth green

Richard Latham describes the course’s architecture as predominantly ‘penal’ in style and the three par threes certainly are. The fifth (148/141 yards) and twelfth (172/162 yards) are surrounded by the deepest bunkers you will ever have seen while at the eighth hole anything that is not up and straight into this 200 yarder into the prevailing wind and on a rise, is penalised heavily.

The fifth’s tee has been moved for Health & Safety reasons, now giving a 45 degree angle to the long thin green and again plays into the prevailing wind which leaves many in the front bunker with its eight foot depth.

The heather is certainly penal, extending right to the very edge of the fairways but the fairways, though looking tight across the long carries from the tees, are actually reasonably wide at around 30 to 35 yards.

There are four short par fours of less than 370 yards and the tenth, fifteenth and seventeenth are each tantalising in their offer of risk/reward.

The seventeenth

It was the seventeenth that the Colonel, perhaps surprisingly, called the most difficult hole at only 336/322 yards. His reason he explained was because it required a long drive to the right of the fairway in order to have the easiest pitch to a well protected and deeply bunkered green. That drive to a slight left-hand dogleg with a right-hand cambered fairway can easily run off into the semi-rough and leave one shut out by trees standing close to the fairway or catch the mound bunker. He goes on to make the classic remark: “Like many good holes, if you are playing well you think how simple it is, but should you once find trouble and then lose your nerve, it may veritably develop into your golfing nightmare.” This reminds me of so many Royal Dornoch holes.

Many would suggest that the predominant design character of Woodhall Spa would be the heather, the long carries from the tee and the deepness and hugeness of much of the bunkering. This is true and is part of its championship credentials, challenging the scratch player, nevertheless it is Hotchkin’s subtle green complexes enhanced by the firm bouncy turf and his use of dead ground to confuse the mind that raises the level of joy-to-be-alive FineGolf feeling.

Today’s 3rd green with tower behind

At the second hole (440/401 yards) Doak has tightened the drive bunkers from the right and dug out a grave of a bunker on the left, while dead ground in front of the green is deceptive.

Original 3rd green before Hotchkin moved it to plateau behind.

The third (415/408 yards), the card’s only blind drive, plays across new bunkering to a plateau green in front of the tower that is as iconic in Club image terms as the one that dominates Littlestone’s seventeenth hole.

The fourth (414/383 yards) is a classic left-hand dogleg with a bunker on the corner and a cavernous greenside bunker the lip of which is eleven feet high to reach the plateau green. When dry and firm the green of 35 yards in length helps prevent the high pitch from bouncing through.

The greens’ agronomy has suffered from players infected with Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD), with their demand for high putting speed. The greens are subsequently cut below the 4.5mm quoted in Latham’s book in 2004. Some fescue can be found in a few places and certainly browntop bent is being over-seeded but the greens remain predominantly annual meadow grass (Poa annua) and give that receptiveness that takes the edge off the challenge of playing to them.

The 6th hole

Eight of the holes are straight as is the sixth (526/464 yards) which plays more interestingly and challengingly from the yellow tee as a par four, requiring the drive bunkers to be carefully threaded through, rather than as a comparatively easy par five from the blue tees. It doesn’t look special but the green complex is unusual and difficult.

It is on this hole that the disused railway line that runs through the course is first noticed from which, in years past, sparks from the coal fired engines used to quite often set the heather alight. These days the burning of roughs and heather is unfortunately one of the downsides to climate alarmism, this maintenance method being seen as unacceptable. Nevertheless, disease elimination and healthy heather and rough regeneration from controlled burning is still carried out on some sensible courses like Royal St George’s where the inestimable Paul Larsen is leading the fight to present a firm running course for the 2020 Open Championship against the most difficult weather conditions of the last two years. We all hope he does not give in to the siren calls to over-fertilise.

At the seventh Doak has created a natural bunkering and waste area on the corner of a strong right hand dogleg hole (470/409 yards) and this is where the trees of the northerly wood first come into play down the left hand side, limiting the run-out area.

Cross bunkers on the ninth

The straight ninth (584/545 yards), one of only two par fives, sports a penal cross bunker and a mound on the right of the green from which an approach may kindly bounce down to the heart of the green.

Original bunker on the tenth.

One usually lays-up at the right-hand dogleg tenth (338/328 yards) giving a deceptive shot with dead ground to a green sited at the furthest point from the clubhouse.

The next three holes, still on the well draining sandy gravel heath, nevertheless duck in among the pine woods that have grown up since the 1930s but the eleventh and twelfth holes have been greatly improved recently through removal of some encroaching trees.

These three hole to my mind represents an iconic run of holes that reminds me of the best of Woodhall Spa. Tough, exact and penal.

Ramblers on the ‘Viking Way’ footpath that crosses the eleventh hole

At the eleventh (437/404 yards) a long iron approach shot is played over penal cross scrub and bunker to a distant raised green with dead ground in front and no greenside bunkers.

The late Jim Arthur, golf’s finest ever consultant and author of the greenkeeping bible ‘Practical greenkeeping’.

On my first occasion of playing Woodhall I found some eight members of the green-staff each forking this green to provide aeration to the turf that perhaps was rather moist being encompassed by trees. Today’s greenkeepers can be thankful that Jim Arthur placed so much emphasis on the need for aeration in supporting fine grasses that we now have many labour saving devices to help do this vital work.

The twelfth, with its famous bunkers twelve feet deep, has been lengthened from 144 to 172/162 yards and it is of enormous relief to hit the green!

The 12th green

In 1983 during a club knock-out competition Mr Henshaw and Mr Wilson halved the hole with aces. In contrast, during the 2000 Brabazon Trophy one competitor, only one over par at the time, walked off this hole thirteen over, holing out in fifteen after some ‘Hamlet’ moments in the left hand bunker.

This reminds me of recently taking seven shots to extract my ball from a Rye bunker during the 2019 English Hickory Championship but at least I had the excuse of trying to use a niblick with a razor sharp bottom, unlike modern wedges that can be more easily bounced off the sand!

The 13th

The third hole in my iconic run of three, the thirteenth (451/428 yards), plays into the prevailing wind and requires two of your very best hit shots to be on the green, including the finding of a fairway between three drive bunkers and carrying the cross bunkers some sixty yards shy of the bunkerless green.

Cross bunkers shy of 13th green.

I ground my teeth here recently after three-putting from no distance for my five. There are all kinds of ways to make a double bogey at this tree-lined hole that has heavy rough close to the fairway.

Fescue turfed drain line on fourteenth fairway. Click to enlarge

Fourteen (520/457 yards) is a curving right hand dogleg par five from the back tee that requires the correct line off the yellow tee to allow you to thread your second past the left-hand bunker that Donald Steel in the 1980s brought more into play forty yards shy of the raised green. Doak has added bunkers and extra drainage has been put in to this clay fairway with the fine fescue turfed drain-lines standing out starkly against the surrounding weed meadow grass.

The 15th green

Doak has added a left hand drive bunker at the fifteenth (321/315 yards) and most people will lay up to allow themselves a full high short iron into a green that is well protected by mounded bunkers, rather than risk a driver and face the trees and undergrowth lying tight on both sides.

The sixteenth (395/367 yards) used to be the weakest hole on the course being on clay, hemmed in by trees and with a wet green. It added little variety coming between two tight short par fours, while weakening the finish to the round.

16th green in 2005

With the trees now removed from the left-hand side of this hole it is reconnected to the earlier heath holes, and the change now allows the wind and sun to dry it out. With only one bunker among mounds at forty yards before the green and playing into the prevailing wind, the tiger can now open his shoulders and use his length advantage.

16th green today.

After negotiating the tight seventeenth, the eighteenth (540/442 yards) is a grander finish again when played off the yellow tees as a par four. It is dominated by a large oak tree on the right, half-way between the drive landing area and the green. Strategy is required here which is the first time I have used that word in this review. This perhaps suggests that Richard Latham is right that the predominant architectural style is penal, in the sense that the only way to the target is to carry a particular hazard. At the eighteenth one needs to drive down the left of the fairway or otherwise one will need to bend your second round the oak.

The preceding is not to say this course is too difficult for high handicappers in its execution, since much of the feared penalty is in the mind but this is a ‘big’ course, having been the venue for three Brabazon Trophies (English Open Amateur Strokeplay) and countless other amateur and home international championships.

The Hotchkin is correctly considered as one of GB&I’s finest inland running golf courses and is one of three exceptional golfing challenges across The West and East Midlands not normally thought of as an area for running golf.

The Hotchkin is second only to Notts/Hollinwell which has the advantage of strong movement in its land and now utilises a firm fine grasses agronomy on its greens as well as fairways. Northamptonshire County (Church Brampton) is the distant third, though if that club can continue the recent turn-round from its previous complacent drift to lush parkland and return to firm running heathland with over-seeding of fine grasses and conservation greenkeeping, then perhaps more golfers will recognise its strengths as being ahead of other Midland contenders like Luffenham Heath and the attractive heathlands with unfortunately predominantly annual meadow grass (Poa annua) greens at Beau Desert, Lindrick, Enville, Coxmoor, Tadmarton Heath and Sherwood Forest.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2019

Richard Latham’s book is available from www.richardlathamgolfbooks.com

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