There’s a rare sense of stillness and tranquillity as you walk Woodhall Spa’s iconic Hotchkin Course.
This secluded, unassuming corner of Lincolnshire may be home to one of the best inland golf courses on the planet but there’s no fuss or fanfare here. The contrary is true, in fact.
From the moment you leave the relative bustle of the 1st tee behind, this not only feels like a golf course that’s in harmony with the natural wonder of the land it so eloquently occupies, but one with nothing to prove. If there’s an unmistakeable sense of restfulness on the Hotchkin Course, that belies a restlessness off it.
Dating back to the days of Colonel Stafford Vere Hotchkin himself there has always been an ethos here of constantly pursuing perfection – however unattainable. It’s an ethos which endures.
As long as the world top 100 list has existed, Woodhall Spa’s Hotchkin Course has vied with The Old Course at Sunningdale for the honour of Britain’s best inland layout with both a constant on the list. For many clubs that would be enough to rest and reflect. Not here. And that drive for constant improvement is why, despite its rich history, this golf course has never played better than it does today.
In the latest top 100 rankings, The Hotchkin Course rose 16 places, from 70th to 54th. “Because of my interest in top golf courses and what makes one rank above another, I know how hard it is to go up that list, “ says Richard Latham, Woodhall Spa’s highly-respected general manager. “When we learned that we’d moved up, it was – I’m not embarrassed to say it – actually very emotional. There may even have been a little glass of champagne to toast the project we had taken on, which at times was nothing short of gruelling, a story of human endeavour. So, I’d be lying if I said the rankings didn’t matter to us.”
The project Richard refers to was about reclamation and, above all, restoration. The acclaimed American architect Tom Doak was brought in to both turn the clock back on this wonderful course, but also preserve it for the future.
Over decades, the natural growth of the land here had continued unchecked. Trees, thousands of them, had encroached onto the golf course changing the characteristics both of the heathland and the strategic layout, almost without anyone noticing. After all, who really notices trees growing?
Over three winters from 2016 Doak, his team and Woodhall Spa’s 16 greenkeepers, stripped The Hotchkin Course back towards its origins, removing an extraordinary 10,000 trees from the heathland and reshaping fairways, greens and bunkers. “What we’ve done is re-establish the architectural principles of this golf course and in doing that, restored it to something that’s extremely natural. Heathland golf, in its purest form, should be rustic and pure, in my opinion. What we’ve done is allow nature to take its place here again.
“We’ve allowed areas outside of the playing surfaces to be wild and restored an ecosystem, a mosaic of animals and plants. We’ve tried to leave things natural, so rather than make our bunkers look pristine, like some other heathland courses, we’ve left them as they are to allow everything to live in harmony. We chose the natural look over something much more manicured.”
That natural wonder is beautifully unavoidable as you stride down the 1st. It’s the kind of place where some will find it harder to make a birdie than to spot a roe deer hiding in the long grass or skipping through the birch. Golf courses are, by their very nature, artificial but Woodhall Spa’s Hotchkin Course feels as though it is embracing its surroundings in a way that makes you feel it must always have been here.
The opening three holes are a wonderful introduction to what must be the most strategic of any of the great heathland gems of Great Britain. The textures, the vibrant colours, the variety of the ecosystem make it a course that requires a strategic outlook and pure ball-striking to score well, as well as a mind strong enough to ensure your focus is not too easily dragged away by the beauty of the surroundings.
There are no weak holes here. In fact, it’s the kind of golf course where your favourite hole changes almost as soon as you have played the next. The 7th hole is memorable and carves alluringly around the sandy heathland in a way it has not done for many years. “Tom (Doak) did things out here which were truly fascinating,” Richard adds. “He would say ‘we are going to do a clear fell between here and the green on the right.’ I would say ‘what?’ And he would say ‘no, I want everything out – gorse, trees, the lot.” And I would say, ‘why?’ He would respond, ‘just do it and I’ll show you why.’ I would say ‘if I do that, I am going to be criticised for making the course too easy. And he would say to me, ‘OK, Richard, you’re a good player, how would you play this hole?’ I replied, ‘well I would hit it down the left.” He said, ‘and why do you do that? Because all the trouble is on the right.’ He said, ‘if you open the right-hand side up, you will give golfers options and when you give a golfer an option it becomes harder.’
I went, ‘really? You’re sure?’ And he replied simply, ‘clear fell it’. And so, we did. And do you know what? In the next tournament we had, the Brabazon Trophy, it played the second hardest on the course and that was purely down the fact there were now four different ways you could play it. No one knew how to attack it. And even now, when I stand on that tee – depending on the wind – I have a few ways to play the hole. But the options I’ve got slightly confuse me. I start to worry about how much of that corner I can take on – it’s a fascinating subject golf architecture – you find ways to almost trick the brain of a golfer.”
The bunkers on Woodhall Spa’s Hotchkin Course are the stuff of legend. Like Ganton, they’re vast and they are plentiful – some 142 across the 18 holes. They are also deep, and they are wonderfully wild and natural.
But over the years, they had become too fearsome. They had gone too deep, with the slopes running downhill towards faces that were in some cases 10ft in height. “It doesn’t matter how good a bunker player you are,” Richard adds. “The bunkers had got to the point where they had become unfair.’
Doak and his team addressed that issue too. And yet, there are almost no occasions on this golf course when you can’t afford not to consider the bunkering, particularly from the tee. They are a constant threat, strategically placed to challenge and cajole you, influencing the way you play each hole, your choice of club, your whole approach on every single tee box. That’s a quality very few great golf courses have.
We’re loathed to pick one hole out over another. The par-3 12th deserves a mention, it’s widely viewed as one of the best par-3s in the world, quite understandably. And the bunkering is wonderful, even if the cavernous nature of them is not entirely obvious from the tee. In 1974 one competitor in the English Amateur Championship drove his car into one of them as he attempted to find a shortcut to the clubhouse. That should be warning enough to ensure you do your all to find the green here.
Each of the par-3s have their own allure, as do the par-5s which present a different strategic challenge from one another. The 17th, a short par-4, is another wonderful hole but you must find your own favourites when you play here. Your list will be long and memorable.
And so, the end of a round you’d rather wouldn’t end and the fabulous 18th hole. From the tee, you see an ocean of bunkers – there are 23 of them on this hole. With a good drive, it’s reachable in two but so much depends on finding the fairway. It’s a fitting finish to a truly extraordinary golfing experience.
It may not be particularly convenient to get to or surrounded by a slew of other great golf courses but, in truth, Woodhall Spa doesn’t need you or I to validate what makes it so special. Why? Well, during the round it occurred to me that stillness and tranquillity you feel on The Hotchkin, not only comes from that connection to nature but it exists because it feels as though this place and this course is comfortable in its own skin, almost as if it knows how special it actually is. That is the best way I could describe the feeling of playing here.
Whether you make the effort to discover this place for yourselves for yourselves or not, is up to you, The Hotchkin will be just fine if you don’t. Whether you will be, if you don’t come and drink in this truly wonderful golfing experience, is a question only you know the answer to.