Hidden gems of British golf
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
WOODHALL SPA, England – Journeying to the quintessential English town of Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire is a chore, but worth every boring mile. In fact, it’s so good you’d travel twice the distance to play what I think is the best inland track in the British Isles.
Woodhall Spa is only 150 miles from London, but it feels like 300. Not much happens in this sleepy English town. Actually, it’s like stepping into the past. In North American terms, the town qualifies under the term “one horse.” Thankfully that horse is a thoroughbred of a golf course that everyone should try to ride at some point.
The county of Lincolnshire is as flat as a pancake. This is fen country. The land is low and marshy and generally not good for building golf courses. Woodhall’s Hotchin Course is the exception.
If this course were within 50 miles of London, everyone would have heard of it. None of the London courses can match Woodhall for classic, heathland golf. Pretty bold statement considering around London are course like Sunningdale, The Berkshire, Swinley Forest, Walton Heath and many more. All excellent venues, but none as good as Woodhall Spa.
Woodhall Spa is the only course I’ve ever played where it’s easier to play off the back tees than the normal yardage markers. That’s due to a couple of holes that become par-5s off the back tees, but are brutal par-4s off the normal tees. The 18th is a case in point. With a generous fairway, this hole is a fairly benign par-5 where you can hit a sand or lob wedge into the green and make an easy par. As a par-4, however, you are facing a long iron or rescue club into the green and getting a four is no easy task.
The routing is very good, so good that each hole seems in its own little landscape. The front nine is more open. Don’t think, though, that it’s going to play easy. It doesn’t. Heather is a strong defense on the opening holes. Spray your tee shot into this wiry stuff and you’ll sometimes struggle to find the ball let alone find the putting surface.
The holes get tighter on the back nine, so anyone who sprays the ball around a bit is going to be chipping balls back into play out of the trees.
Sand is Woodhall’s main defense, though. Woodhall doesn’t so much have sand traps as foxholes. Woodhall has deeper bunkers than many seaside courses. On this visit, I played with a 22-handicapper who basically gave up every time he got in a bunker. After three or four swipes he threw in the towel, picked his ball up and played spectator.
If you struggle with your bunker play, then put in a lot of practice before you get to Woodhall.
If you are an aficionado of British golf, then put Woodhall Spa on your list of places to play next time you’re in the British Isles. The drive is worth it.
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Ten other great inland England courses
The Berkshire – Two courses, the Blue and Red, offer a great day of golf. The Red is unique since it has six par-3s, six par-4s, and six par-5s.
Ashridge – Sir Henry Cotton was the pro here for many years, which is endorsement enough.
Swinley Forest – A short, intricate layout. Understated clubhouse, and member’s list that read like a who’s who of British aristocracy.
Woburn – Three great tracks offering a variety of challenge. I know – I’m a member.
Berkhamstead – No bunkers on this course. It doesn’t need any. It’s a great test all the same.
Alwoodley – Dr Alister Mackenzie designed this course near Leeds. Need I say more?
Ganton – Has held the Walker and Curtis Cups in this decade. That says it all.
The Three Ws: Woking, West Hill and Worplesdon all seemingly within pitching distance west of London and wonderful golf.