I made my first pilgrimage to Woodhall Spa Golf Club eight years ago. That I’d eventually select one of its holes for an Eclectic 18 on a golf blog would have been unthinkable—and not just because of the part about contributing to a golf blog!
Colonel Stafford Vere Hotchkin purchased the club in his home village on returning from the Great War. Alongside Cecil Key Hutchison, Hotchkin remodelled a course that Harry Vardon had built in 1905 and that Harry Colt had renovated in 1911. Hotchkin’s changes were wholesome, and around the middle of the 20th century, he passed off operations of Woodhall Spa to his son, Neil.
Interpreting his father’s vision for bold, deep, and deadly hazards, Neil Hotchkin directed many of the course’s 138—perhaps I lost count?—bunkers to be dug a couple of feet deeper. He then had the excess dirt added to the top side of the faces for double effect. Left of the short 12th, twelve feet and a near vertical face are the punishments. Not many bunkers at Woodhall Spa are much shallower.
The 12th hole at Woodhall Spa
Neil’s other enduring contribution was to encourage the woodland invasion. On his watch, which lasted until the English Golf Union took over the course in 1995, it is said that not a single tree was cut down. Without human intervention, the once expansive heath turned into narrow corridors. But beneath all of the clutter, the bones of a wacky array of features remained.
Over three winters, working in collaboration with Woodhall Spa’s greenkeeping staff, Renaissance Golf Design restored the Hotchkin Course and brought this sleepy part of Lincolnshire back to life. (Full disclosure: I was part of the RGD team, so feel free to take my positive assessment of the restoration with a grain of salt.)
Beyond peeling back the trees, the main focus of our work focused on the infamous bunkers: addressing faces that struggled to maintain grass and improving accessibility and maintenance, all while retaining their world-renowned fear factor.
Although the hazards are bold and menacing, the golf at Woodhall Spa is rather subtle. The greens and fairways have sometimes imperceptible tilts, but on a typically dry east-of-the-country summer day, these firm surfaces come alive. Only well-shaped shots hold their camber, and the margin for error becomes very fine. Heather—or worse—awaits the poor or ill-conceived strike.
The Hotchkin Course has a strong collection of holes, several of which would have been good enough to fill the gaps in an Eclectic 18. No. 7 sweeps beautifully around a sand-exposed heath. The three par 5s have varied bunkering schemes: No. 9 with a trio of cross bunkers, No. 14 with shallow craters hemming in the approach, and No. 18 tempts with a series of intruding sand pits provoking a risky play off the tee.
But it was the four short par 4s that Tom Doak highlighted in the Gourmet’s Choice section of his Confidential Guide. Of these, I find No. 17 the most appealing.
A Google Earth view of the 17th hole at Woodhall Spa
The fairway angles across the line of play, so that the hole effectively doglegs from right to left. At one time, pine and birch trees encroached on the inside line. With those inside trees gone, the 17th green is now temptingly within reach for the strong player. But since it’s perched up and tilted toward two bunkers on the right, only a great shot can hold its surface. On the direct line to the hole, we restored a serpentine bunker to its full 50-plus-yard length. It flashes up where it meets the green both to tempt and to warn.
The sensible tee shot is a mid- to long iron near a fairway bunker on the right. From there, the green opens, and you’ll be playing into its left-to-right cant. Finding this ideal spot, though, is confused by a once sandy, now heathery cop that stands proud in front of the fairway.
My only remaining wish for this fine hole is to see the trees beyond the fairway cleared, revealing the distant backdrop implied by this historical photo:
A historical photo of the 17th hole at Woodhall Spa. Credit: Richard A. Latham, A Definitive Guide to the Hotchkin Course - Woodhall Spa
In terms of funkiness, only Walton Heath can compete with Woodhall Spa and its heather-clad bunkers. The textures should be the envy of any inland course in the world. Indeed, the restored Hotchkin course may now be the most interesting of all of England’s heathland gems.