Appeared in November/December 2003 LINKS
The majority of North Americans traveling to the British Isles never considers a visit to the northern half of England. Their typical itineraries read as follows: “Fly to London … sample the capital’s wealth of history and culture … day-trip to nearby Oxford, Windsor and Stratford … head north to Scotland for whisky, haggis, tartan and bagpipes.”
Visiting golfers tread a similar path. They seek out a game on one of London’s classic heathland layouts—say, Sunningdale, Wentworth or Walton Heath—and perhaps even find time to journey south to Sandwich for a glimpse of Royal St George’s. Then, invariably, they zip away to explore the golfing wonders of Scotland or Ireland.
Yet consider this: The most splendid scenery in the entire British Isles can be found in the far northwest of England—the majestic Lake District, beloved land of the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. And the country’s finest inland golf courses do not nestle adjacent to London in Surrey or Berkshire; rather, they are located in the northeast corner of England, in the counties of North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. I refer, respectively, to Ganton and Woodhall Spa.
While the Old Course at Sunningdale might be the most charming (as well as the prettiest) course in England, and the West Course at Wentworth the most famous “championship” test, Woodhall Spa and Ganton are superior layouts, architecturally speaking. As for which of these two is the country’s premier inland course, it’s probably too close to call. Suffice to say, if your appetite is for an inland course with links characteristics, then you might favor Ganton, for it looks and plays much like Muirfield. On the other hand, if you want to tackle the best heathland golf course in the British Isles, you’ll definitely want to put Woodhall Spa on your itinerary.
Anyone embarking on this trip should possess, in addition to a finely tuned golf game, a detailed map, for Woodhall Spa is not easy to locate. The route begins simply enough, heading north from London along the A1, a major highway. But once it leaves this thoroughfare, a series of minor “B” roads must be followed through a brown sea of Lincolnshire farmland, causing a visitor to wonder how a world-class golf course could possibly be situated amid such uninspiring terrain.
Still, the town of Woodhall Spa is as refreshing as its name suggests, and—despite its moderate size—brims with history and landmarks, including a 13th-century chapel and a 15th-century tower. The town was celebrated in the 1800s for its mineral waters, and it was from here during the Second World War that the legendary Dam Busters Squadron plotted its strategic raids on Germany.
But the most extraordinary feature of Woodhall Spa is its Hotchkin Course. The nearly century-old design (along with its sister course, the five-year-old Bracken) sits amid the surrounding farmland like an emerald-green island, accented by splashes of reddish-purple heather, yellow gorse and white sand. There are also stately stands of pine and oak, offering hints of Pinehurst, Pine Valley and Prairie Dunes.
Originally laid out by Harry Vardon in 1905 and revised by Harry Colt prior to World War I, the course takes its name from Stafford Hotchkin—or as he preferred to be known, Col. S.V. Hotchkin—who in the 1920s came to own and substantially redesign Woodhall Spa. “This great course stands as a monument to his memory; it is truly a golfing masterpiece,” declared British golf writer Tom Scott.
Indeed, the Hotchkin Course at Woodhall Spa has a multitude of strengths and no real weaknesses. Oh, a few critics have opined that the putting surfaces are a bit flat, and some say the course lacks any truly dramatic or sweeping elevation changes. But neither of these charges is particularly accurate or fair. The site’s topography is full of subtle variation and there is a wonderfully flowing feel to the golf course. Moreover, it is both exceedingly pleasurable and thrilling to play because of the diverse and challenging nature of the golf holes, the striking (and occasionally frightening) quality of the hazards, and the sheer beauty of the immediate environment.
On a fine day summer’s day Woodhall Spa dazzles, so stunning is its heathland setting. And the sheer scale of the course’s hazards makes for a prodigious test of golf. The bunkering in particular is demanding, for not only are the traps plentiful and expertly placed, many of them have near-vertical faces and are so cavernous they wouldn’t look out of place at a British Open venue. The encroaching heather is pleasing to the eye, but a devil to play from, while the pines, oaks and myriad other species of trees add considerable strategic and aesthetic value.
In a similar vein to Surrey’s Walton Heath, Woodhall Spa is a true shotmaker’s course that requires a golfer to plot his way around. Yet it’s also long, stretching to 7,000 yards for important tournaments (such as the English Amateur Championship, both men’s and women’s). When the fairways are narrowed and pinched, stout but accurate driving is richly rewarded.
The Hotchkin Course does not have returning nines, though the routing is not strictly out and back, as is sometimes suggested. In fact, the course meanders away from the clubhouse for 10 holes before beginning its journey home at the 11th tee. There are two truly sublime stretches. One runs from the elegant, two-shot third, which is played beneath the gaze of an impressive rust-colored brick tower, to the par-3 fifth, a hole with the sort of deep bunkers one could lose a playing partner in.
Then there’s the sequence of holes 9-13. After the 560-yard ninth (the longest hole on the course) and the par-4 10th come the two most acclaimed holes at Woodhall Spa. No hole exemplifies the beauty, grandeur and flowing character of Woodhall Spa better than the 437-yard 11th. It ringingly disproves the theory that the golf course somehow lacks an element of drama and that the putting surfaces are flat (the green here being gently crowned). A large fairway bunker, mischievously positioned 70 yards short of the green, is the key feature of the 11th, while a host of deep, avoid-at-all-cost greenside pot bunkers practically encircle the Postage Stamp-style par-3 12th. A plaque relates how two club members once halved this hole with aces.
A glance at the scorecard might suggest the Hotchkin Course’s finishing stretch offers ample birdie opportunities, for two par-5s and a pair of short par-4s come within the final five holes. But many a promising round has been scuppered on one or another of these cunningly conceived challenges. The 18th is a par-5, recently lengthened to 544 yards, with potential danger lurking all the way from tee to green. Still, if any of the closing holes is a scoring opportunity, it’s here, assuming one plays intelligently. Whatever the outcome, you’ll enjoy winding down in Woodhall Spa’s intimate clubhouse afterwards—and you’ll no doubt conclude that your journey to these remote parts was well worth the effort.