There’s no escaping that the Bracken Course at Woodhall Spa Golf Club is, like many other fabulous venues the world over, will always exist in the shadow of its more celebrated big brother.
The New and The Old Course, St Andrews. The Cashen Course and The Old, Ballybunion. The Castle Course and The Old at Lahinch Golf Club – the list goes on and on. When golfers hear the words Woodhall Spa, they immediately think of the iconic Hotchkin Course – it is, after all, rated the 54th best on earth. But the Bracken need not be defined or limited by that association.
They share a club, but they are two completely different golf courses. For a start they were founded some 90 years apart, they were designed by different men, the land on which they sit has different features – they look different, they feel different and they play differently.
The fact they are completely isolated from each other on this estate at Woodhall Spa Golf Club only adds to that feeling.
The Bracken is a golf course in its own right, and it was important for us, as we arrived on a warm July afternoon, to explore it with the same appetite we would The Hotchkin the next morning.
A small bridge brings you from the car park into the heart of Woodhall Spa Golf Club and it’s The Hotchkin Course which grabs your attention first as the 1st tee and 18th green comes into view.
The Bracken Course is a no more than a 5-minute walk away from that hub and close by are some of the best practice facilities you will find anywhere in England.
The practice ground, for instance, has recently been fitted with top tracer technology. The four-acre short game area close to The Bracken, is vast and wonderful. There are eight target greens to aim at, as well as bunkers styled in a variety of different ways. There are two more putting greens for those with an insatiable appetite for practice. You really could lose hours and hours here.
The walk to the 1st tee of The Bracken Course at Woodhall Spa crosses the Viking Way and emerges from thick woodland. The starters’ hut to the left of the tee area is a reminder that no matter which course you play here, things are done a certain way at Woodhall.
The opening hole is a gentle introduction to what lies ahead: a generous fairway and a large putting surface, with bold, sweeping slopes and swales which require real thought and, often, creativity to negotiate. Their size and slopes bring the possibility of 3-putts into play.
The Bracken Course was designed by Donald Steel, one of Britain’s foremost modern architects, and opened in 1998. Some 20 plus years on and it feels like this is a course which is maturing beautifully. It has grown into its surroundings and the mature trees which border it mean you are rarely playing one hole alongside another. From the first tee you can see the 18th green and the 2nd plays alongside the 17th but the routing turns you and twists you so cleverly across this piece of land that it’s rare for two holes to run in the same direction and there is always the sense that you don’t quite know where you are on the course.
That said, if you can keep your ball straight, the 1st should be a solid par 4 to get your round going, if you can’t do that here, life will get soon get harder.
There are very few holes which don’t require some real thought from the tee. There are, for instance, a number of short par-4s, the narrow 8th is a good example. You could hit a driver, a 4 iron or even an 8-iron from the tee and still make a four. The fact the golfer has so many options adds to the challenge and requires clarity of thought to take advantage of. The bunkering, as you would expect at Woodhall Spa, is excellent throughout and nearly always demands you pay them due consideration from the tee.But while an iron often seems to make sense, there is often more room than you might think if you are prepared to pull out the driver and take them on.
That’s why The Bracken Course at Woodhall Spa Golf Club should not be underestimated. The design is genuinely clever and strategic. There is room to attack this course and what you learn in your first round will ensure you approach it differently on your second. The stretch from the 6th to the 9th green is an excellent run of holes and the finishing stretch, from 15 on is also memorable.
We are always loathed to pick out of favourite holes because yours may be so different to our own choices and the great adventure of golf is discovering those for yourselves. For us, though, this was the perfect introduction to Woodhall Spa Golf Club. It was endlessly enjoyable, challenging and thought-provoking. Although, on this occasion, time did not allow we would certainly allow time to play it more than once on our next visit.
Arriving for the afternoon, playing The Bracken and then bedding down for the night nearby, was the perfect way to prepare for The Hotchkin the next morning. Woodhall Spa is not a place to rush. You must take the time to smell the roses, so to speak and that – in our view – absolutely must include a round on The Bracken Course.