Wonderful Woodhall Spa
Woodhall Spa’s Hotchkin course lulls you into a false sense of security. You stand on the tees of the opening nine and the fairways appear 100 yards wide. At some point on the back nine you suddenly realise they’ve shrunk the golf course, the fairways pinch in and you start steering the ball.
Never a good idea when heather, whins, and trees await a wayward drive.
Richard Latham knows Woodhall Spa well. The two-time English Senior Men’s Amateur champion is Woodhall Spa general manager.
“You can be going along quite nicely and all of a sudden you find a tough lie just off the fairway and you walk of the green with a seven," Latham said. "You think: how did that happen? You need to be on your toes because it’s a course that can easily catch you out.”
Never mind just off the fairway, find one of Woodhall’s cavernous bunkers and making par is going to be difficult. Even for the best.
The crème de la crème of British and Irish women’s amateur golf competed over Woodhall Spa’s glorious heathland gem for three days in the recent R&A Women’s Home Internationals. The standard of play was excellent, but none of those bidding for a Curtis Cup place ripped the course apart. They gave it the respect it duly deserves.
So should we.
After recent weeks covering the Home Internationals and Senior Men’s Amateur Championship at Ganton, I’m no closer to identifying the best inland course in England. These two top my list with a plethora of courses that includes Sunningdale, The Berkshire, Hollinwell, Swinley Forest, Alwoodley, my own club Woburn, as credible challengers. England is spoilt for choice for those who choose not to head to the sea for a game of gowf.
One thing’s for sure, Woodhall Spa’s Hotchkin course is England's best par-73 course.
Off the blue tees the course measures just 7,080 yards to that par 73, the white’s measure 6,869 yards. Slope/course ratings? It’s a nose bleed 152 slope off the blues, with a 75.3 course rating. It’s not much less in both categories off the whites, with a slope of 151 and 74.4 course rating. The yellow tees measure 6,495 yards to a par of 72, but don’t think the course will play much easier: the slope is 149, with a course rating of 72.5. The red tees stretch just 5,749 yards, but the slope is 149 with a 74.8 course rating.
What does all of the above tell you? Prepare to eat humble pie when it comes to your course handicap around the Hotchkin. Be thankful Dean Knuth created the slope system: you’re going to need extra shots.
Picking great holes on the Hotchkin is no easy task. They all seem great. For me the par-3s stand out. There are only three of them, but they’re belters. The wee 12th, at 170 yards off the whites, is the pick of the trio for this golfer. Hitting the narrow green is a must because there isn’t much future in the bunkers beside the putting surface.
You won’t be able to see the green if you get in the large left hand bunker because the sand is so far below the green. As for the two small bunkers on the right, they are so skinny there’s a chance you won’t have much of a back swing if your ball lands close to the back edges, with heather and whins in danger of hampering the necessary steep back swing. There’s a wee pot bunker behind these two that you might not even notice because it’s so hidden in the foliage. Get in that bunker and there’s a chance the only way to extract the ball is with your hand.
They don’t shave the bunker surrounds at Woodhall; they let whatever vegetation grows continue to thrive. The purple heather contrasted against the green whins looks fantastic, but that vegetation gobbles up a lot of balls that don’t find sand, further adding to the Hotchkin’s already formidable challenge.
Woodhall has a lot of expansive par-4s with wide fairways, but the choice of best par-4 for me is the short 15th. Further proof that length isn’t everything when it comes to defending par.
At just 320 yards off the whites, there should be no problem getting the ball on the fairway, but you better be accurate with your short irons/wedges to find this small, tricky green that lies in a wee bowl. The flag was on the front of the green for one round of the Women’s Home Internationals, and the best women amateurs struggled to get the ball close to the pin.
As for par-5s, I’ll take the 14th. At 486 yards off the whites, it tempts longer hitters to go for the green, but that second shot has to be faded into this green to miss the right greenside bunker, but if the fade doesn’t come off then deep grass awaits to the left of the green. That’s what happened to the Irish pairing of Annabel Wilson and Beth Coulter in the foursomes session between Ireland and England. English pairing Charlotte Heath and Annabell Fuller played it as a conventional three-shot par 5, made birdie and went one up in a match they would eventually win 3&2.
It pays to give the Hotchkin course the respect it deserves.
I’m still no further ahead in what I think is England’s best inland course. Tom Doak, in his excellent book The Confidential Guide, made Woodhall’s Hotchkin a Gourmet’s Choice selection, one of 31 courses around the world he’d take a close friend to see. He rated Ganton highly too, with an 8 out of 10. That book was published in 1996. I suspect if he were to visit both courses nowadays, he might be inclined to put both on his Gourmet Choice list. They’re that close.
If you haven’t visited the near-somnolent town of Woodhall Spa in the depths of Lincolnshire then I strongly urge you to do so. Don’t fret that it seems to be taking ages to reach your destination: Woodhall Spa seems a million miles from everywhere even though the satnav says otherwise. It’s worth the journey. Arguably the best inland course in England should be on every golfer’s bucket list.
#JustSaying: “The fens of Lincolnshire are the last place one might expect to find good golf. But there it is, an oasis of sandy heath in a small town off the beaten track, with enough length to it for any championship and undoubtedly the deepest bunkers of any British inland course.” Tom Doak