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The brave renaissance of Woodhall Spa

The brave renaissance of Woodhall Spa

Chris Bertram assesses the Hotchkin at Woodhall Spa following Tom Doak's comprehensive restoration of the Lincolnshire golf course
 

“It would have been very easy to do nothing. It was a course we felt was widely respected, that the members liked, that visitors enjoyed and that did well in course rankings. If we had not made any changes, it would not have raised many, if any, eyebrows.”

Those are the words of Richard Latham, the general manager of Woodhall Spa, and they come at the conclusion of a project during which he and the club certainly have made some changes.

There is plenty to say about what has happened in the heart of Lincolnshire, and I will do so shortly. But first let’s pause for a moment to talk about bravery. About boldness. About the courage of your convictions. And especially about judgement.

Latham is correct; the Hotchkin at Woodhall Spa was not a course you regularly heard golfers or even architecture connoisseurs complaining about. It did not feature prominently, if at all, in conversations surrounding courses that were underperforming or had inherent flaws.

Helping Woodhall Spa lower the risk was their choice of architect. It was a prime commission so naturally attracted the interest from big names in the design industry, many of whom would clearly have made a success of the task.

So, many secretaries and their clubs would have ‘left well alone’, perhaps engage in a superficial refurbishment to give their course a fresh look, spend a bit of money on new images and a bit on marketing in order to spread the word, and carry on as they have for many decades.

But they didn’t. Spearheaded by Latham – one of the finest senior amateur golfers in Britain – they undertook one of the most comprehensive overhauls witnessed on one of this country’s classic courses.

That took bravery, because we all know what golf clubs are like, where a change in the type of cheese used in the toasties can cause a kerfuffle.

So one can only imagine what at least some members thought of the plans for an expansive overhaul of their beloved course. To accept that ire, Latham and co had to be bold.

And while they were convinced of the need for change, they needed to have courage in their convictions. They had it.

And while it might look like an obviously beneficial decision now, it wasn’t six years ago when decisive action was agreed. That is where judgement comes in, an oddly under-rated quality today.

And yet, no matter how sound the judgement is, attempting to upgrade anything brings with it risk, whether it’s a football team, a hotel, or a golf course. Even if the theory is sound, the execution can be misguided. And when the upgrade is steeped in emotive history, the danger of it going wrong is even greater.

Helping Woodhall Spa lower the risk was their choice of architect. It was a prime commission so naturally attracted the interest from big names in the design industry, many of whom would clearly have made a success of the task.

But Woodhall had the fortune to be able to appoint arguably the world’s leading name in course architecture, Tom Doak.

This was anything but a superficial makeover, with more than 10,000 oaks, pines and silver birch cut down as part of a three-year, three-phase plan by Doak.

The charismatic American isn’t in the habit of taking on overseas restorations and his fees are usually not insignificant. But he has personal connection to the Hotchkin after being intrigued by the course during his famous travels around Britain and Ireland while a student at St Andrews in the early 1980s, so one way and another he made sure he and his firm of master-shapers could undertake the work.

So why was Latham so sure the Hotchkin needed the feted nous of Doak?

His historical empathy, writings on golf courses, his previous restoration projects, his new builds and his understanding towards the role of trees on golf courses.

The Hotchkin was set down in 1905 on pure heathland, an environment that is arguably even more precious than genuine linksland.

So what? Well, there is as much as 75% less heathland in Britain than 200 years ago because the growth of trees changes the nature of the sandy soils that support the precious heathers and lichens… as well as providing the firm playing surfaces that are the preserve of seaside or heathland courses.

Indeed the sand seam left by glaciers by the last ice age are so rare – not least in the heart of the clay-based county of Lincolnshire – that Woodhall Spa has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest status. But it was threatened by trees and, as a result, so was the character and strategies of the Hotchkin.

“Aerial photographs from the 1960s show trees only around the edge of the site. There were none on the course itself. It was open heathland,” says an animated Latham, pulling up pictures on his computer.

However, 50 years on, golfers were now plotting between narrow corridors with the trees proliferating unchecked to such a degree that they were even hiding bunkers. This distortion of strategy combined with the adverse effect that trees have on grass – as a result of their thirst for nutrients and the shade they cast – gave Latham and Woodhall Spa the impetus to act with conviction in 2016.

This was anything but a superficial makeover, with more than 10,000 oaks, pines and silver birch cut down as part of a three-year, three-phase plan by Doak.

There are other examples of Doak’s eye for minimalist brilliance, not least the sporty two-shot 10th and the cross-bunkered 11th, newly opened up to offer an angle of attack from the right.

“There used to be more strategy here, the angle of the second shot was more important. The removal of trees and scrub not only opens up the course but also puts a renewed emphasis on strategy,” he said as he began his restoration.

That increase in strategy manifests itself in several ways.

Firstly, fairways have been made notably wider by the felling of trees, offering a greater number of angles for approaches and risk-reward moments.

Latham points to the 7th as the perfect example of this phenomenon. This long par 4 used to dog-leg left to right around trees, sand and heather but Doak made that timber some of the thousands to go, which the layman might expect to make the hole easier.

Not so. In fact it has made it more intriguing – but also harder. With the trees gone, the golfer now considers cutting the corner, with heather and sand waiting to penalise.

It used to be the sixth-hardest hole on the course but in the recent Brabazon Trophy it was the second-hardest.

There are other examples of Doak’s eye for minimalist brilliance, not least the sporty two-shot 10th and the cross-bunkered 11th, newly opened up to offer an angle of attack from the right.

Secondly, the removal of trees has seen the rebirth of original bunkers, and many have been shallowed out and their surrounds given that pleasing rough-edged look so often now seen on our leading links.

The depth of the bunkers – which reached an intimidating 12ft – stemmed from over-zealous attempts by the son of Woodhall’s founder Stafford Hotchkin to keep the course a challenge and had long been the Hotchkin’s notorious calling card. It even once snared a Hillman Imp, after a competitor in the 1974 English Amateur decided to drive across the course as a short cut back from a practice session.

There are 29 more of them, with 142 to avoid across the 18 holes, and more sand elsewhere in the form of waste areas created by the removal of trees.

Thirdly, Doak has given the Hotchkin bigger greens. Again, to the layman it sounds like a way to make the course more playable but in fact it has made it more challenging by offering more pin positions – and, naturally, some devious ones among them.

It is twee to suggest new life has been breathed into the Hotchkin, but it is literally true. A five-time host of the Brabazon Trophy and once mooted as The Open’s first inland host by Tony Jacklin, it has long been regarded as a course with pedigree and prestige as well as notable fans.

The sum of all these parts is that the Hotchkin has actually reduced in length but become no less challenging; it’s just that the challenge now is in a more interesting, natural and cerebral way.

But if you’re the kind of golfer who enjoys grand scenes more than strategic choices, the Hotchkin was also appeal to you more now too. Where once oaks and pines created a claustrophobic ambiance, now the heathland literally breathes, with open sandy areas replacing the overbearing timber. This is witnessed nowhere more impressively than on the 15th and 16th.

It is now as visually breathtaking as anything you’ve seen of Walton Heath or Sunningdale and compares favourably with the great sandbelt courses in Australia or revered Pinehurst in North Carolina.

It is twee to suggest new life has been breathed into the Hotchkin, but it is literally true. A five-time host of the Brabazon Trophy and once mooted as The Open’s first inland host by Tony Jacklin, it has long been regarded as a course with pedigree and prestige as well as notable fans.

The club has been the home of England Golf since 1995 and Harry Vardon and Harry Colt both had a hand in shaping it, before Hotchkin did some tinkering after WW1.

Now a fourth name is on the design deeds of the course, Tom Doak. And while his renovation there might not be the first project mentioned in connection with Doak – when Bandon Dunes and Cape Kidnappers are among the others it’s hardly a sleight – the man himself is rightly quietly proud of his work in Lincolnshire.

Word is spreading, too. Golf magazine ranked it at No.54 – a rise of 12 places – in its World Top 100 at the end of last year.

It was vindication for the bravery shown by the club and Latham, whose conviction never wavered even during the cold winter days when it looked a mess or the days in hot seat in front of irate golfers.

“It’s not that I don’t like trees, I adore them,” says Latham. “I honestly had tears in my eyes on occasion when I saw the felling. And while I never doubted the decision, the feedback we are getting and the World Top 100 ranking do feel like reward for what has happened here and everyone who put their heart and soul into it.”

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Chris Bertram

Chris Bertram is a specialist in all things golf courses.
He was born and brought up in Dumfriesshire and has been a sports journalist since 1996, initially as a junior writer with National Club Golfer magazine.
Chris then spent four years writing about football and rugby union for the Press Association but returned to be Editor and then Publisher of NCG.
He has been freelance since 2010 and spends the majority of his time playing golf and writing about the world’s finest golf courses.

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