The Woodhall Spa Hotchkin is commonly – but not universally – regarded as Britain’s finest inland course. And given that the business of comparing golf courses is about as scientific as club selection on a breezy links, ‘commonly regarded’ is quite an impressive qualification in this context. Of its principle – and credible – rivals, many understandably swear by Sunningdale’s Old, while Ganton certainly has its supporters, too. So does Gleneagles. After that, the likes of Walton Heath (both Old and New), Swinley Forest and St George’s Hill.
Loch Lomond and Wentworth’s West course, to this observer at least, are completely different types of course. Loch Lomond has been created rather than uncovered and essentially provides target golf; while Wentworth is a professional tournament venue designed to provide a stage for the world’s finest players.
Both are wonderful courses in their own right – but in many ways what they are not helps to define the criteria for a truly top-rate inland British venue. All of the above boast firm, bouncy, fast-running turf; they are punitively and intelligently bunkered; they are resistant to being over-powered; the greens are among the best you will ever putt on.
Beyond that come some admittedly significant differences. Gleneagles is unrivalled in terms of its location for the majesty of its surroundings. Ganton plays so fast and acquires such a pale colour in summer that it is hard to believe it is not directly by the sea. Sunningdale is incredibly pretty and invariably presented in perfect condition.
So what can Woodhall Spa offer by way of reply? Well, none of the above it must be said. It probably has most in common with Ganton, but only in certain ways. The first thing to say is that Woodhall Spa is remarkably flat – or at least it is remarkably flat to those who do not know the county Lincolnshire very well.
So anyone expecting panoramic views, elevated drives or greens set across chasms is certain to be disappointed. Which is not to say for a moment that the golf is not attractive or challenging, just that it is not of the breathtaking variety.
Gorse and broom are prominent, as is colourful but unforgiving heather, and beyond that trees, trees and more trees, generally oak, fir and silver birches. But – there is no escaping the fact – the land is flat.
If you recognise a truly great course needs to be relentless in the quality of its 18 holes, Woodhall Spa is our ‘best inland course’.
In fact, just about the only parts of the Hotchkin course that are on a different elevation to the rest are the bunkers, the bottoms of which are generally located what seems like about 10 yards below ground level.
Many of the 110 (yes, that’s one hundred and ten) bunkers are absolutely vicious specimens. It can be safely said that no other inland course – and few links for that matter – can rival them for size, depth or sheer proliferation.
They dictate strategy on several holes and a good score is simply impossible to put together if you find more than the occasional one. Walking towards one knowing your ball is within is not a pleasant experience – and it is all you can hope for that it will be lying in a position from where you can escape at the first attempt.
The punitive nature of the bunkering is one reason why a glance at Woodhall’s card is deceptive. It shows four par fives and a quartet of short par fours, which you might reasonably assume could form the basis of a good score.
But while these holes are certainly tempting, each and every one is also capable of extracting a double bogey from a relatively minor mistake. This is particularly true should you be overly aggressive. The best way of making a three at the short par fours is to play for position off the tee and then wedge in accurately. Some of the par fives can be reached in two but to make a birdie it is generally necessary to do more than merely leave your second shot in the vicinity of the green and expect a straightforward chip and putt.
Perhaps the most dangerous holes here are not the long par fours (of which four are in excess of 430 yards) though these are extremely testing. A new championship tee makes the 7th arguably the pick of them – in the summer the carry to the fairway can be terrifying.
In terms of card-wrecking potential, though, it is Woodhall’s trio of short holes that really test the nerve. All three are surrounded by bunkers – 16 in total flank their greens. While in each case the target is relatively generous, the penalties for missing each is severe indeed.
Watch your ball trickle off the green and into a bunker and you could be looking at the difference between a comfortable par and a ruined round. It is the sheer depth that causes the problem. Sometimes the only way out is backwards, and even that is not easy.
The pick of the three, and Woodhall’s most famous hole, is the 12th. The tee is in the woods, the green slightly raised. If you stand on one side of the green and your partner is in one of the bunkers on the other, you will not be able to see him.
The 12th is part of what is generally thought of as the superior inward nine. This is not because any particular stretch is sub-standard on the front nine – there is no such thing as even a weak hole here – but just on account of the additional variety.
Six holes – including four par fours – on the outward half travel in the same direction. But the back nine, despite having only one short hole, the aforementioned 12th, features three short fours and is slightly more subtle.
It also finishes in style with the wonderful last hole that has more tees than surely any other hole in Britain and can be played from a variety of angles and at a length of anywhere between 400 and 540 yards. A lone oak tree on the right of the fairway defines the drive, and a suitably large and flat closing green, as should always be the case, awaits at the end.
The Hotchkin Course celebrated its centenary in 2005. Golf has been played here since the late 1800s but in 1905 Open legend Harry Vardon designed 18 holes on the land the course stands on today. Harry Colt, something of an inland specialist with the likes of Wentworth and Swinley Forest to his name, was called in some seven years later to carry out revisions.
The finishing touches were carried out by Major SV Hotchkin in 1920 and, apart from several new tees introduced to add extra length over the years, what he designed stands today. His legacy is a course the single greatest strength of which is its lack of a weakness.
And so, with regards to the ‘best inland course’ debate, if your penchant is for outstanding individual holes, then you may well conclude that Sunningdale, Swinley, Walton Heath and Gleneagles are more to your liking.
But if you recognise that a truly great golf course needs to be relentless in the quality of its 18 holes, then you will surely concur that Woodhall Spa should be the recipient of the ultimate accolade.