Mix together a great golf course and a great golf architect – and the result is the Hotchkin course at Woodhall Spa being polished to heathland perfection by Tom Doak.
The world-renowned architect and his team have just completed a ten-day visit to the National Golf Centre, the home of England Golf, starting a project which will span three years and will restore the heathland glory of the course.
It’s intensive work. They’re tackling six holes on each of their visits, working on the 113 deep bunkers which give the course much of its character and removing pines, silver birch, gorse and scrub which has encroached upon the heathland.
The result will be bunkers which are easier to maintain – but not easier to play out of – and the opening up of the course, revealing magnificent golfing vistas.
This first phase is focussed on holes 7-11 and 13 and the changes will be bedded in for the 2017 playing season, when the Hotchkin will host a series of top championships including the Brabazon Trophy.
It’s all designed to keep the course firmly in the world’s top 100 rankings, after a wake-up call when the Hotchkin was placed 71st in the 2015 table. It meant it had slipped 45 places over 26 years and, when General Manager Richard Latham made enquiries, the feedback centred on the condition of the bunkers.
Latham is passionate about the course, describing it as a national golfing treasure, and knew action had to be taken, leading to the appointment of Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf Design.
The bunkers, and making them easier to maintain, are central to the project. Doak has never worked on anything like them before, but he and his team are quick learners. “After two days we had worked on about 12 bunkers, so we got the hang of it pretty fast and it’s going well,” he said.
“These bunkers, being as deep as they are, add character to the golf course, but it’s very hard to maintain the faces, especially the south-facing faces. It’s hard to keep grass on them, it’s hard to keep anything but dirt on them,” he explained.
The solutions can include a little judicious reshaping, or moving heather on to the faces – with every step of the work watched closely by Natural England’s representative. The Hotchkin is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The removal of trees and scrub will not only open up the course, but also put a renewed emphasis on strategy for the players. As the trees encroached it became increasing important to play straight shots, rather than concentrating on the angle of attack. “There used to be more strategy, the angle of the second shot was more important and we are trying to get some of that back,” said Doak. The clearance will also bring a number of old bunkers back in to play.
The project brings Doak back to a course which he first visited as a student 30 years ago. Since then he’s built many wonderful golf courses, with several featuring highly in the world’s top 100, and he has restored others. But he well remembers his first visit to Woodhall Spa and his meeting with Neil Hotchkin, whose father, Stafford, provided the land for the course, which was formally opened in 1905.
Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and Harry Colt all contributed to the early design of the course, but it was Stafford Vere Hotchkin who made it what it is, remodelling many of the holes, moving greens and tees and adjusting hazard locations. His son Neil carried on his work and in 1995 sold it to what was then the English Golf Union.
Tom Doak enjoys the lengthy family connection and his interest is also caught by the rare opportunity to work on a heathland course – but he’s not here to put a Doak stamp on the Hotchkin. He’s here because it’s a special course and he can help to preserve it.
“I only do this for golf courses I feel strongly about. I only gravitated to what I do because I really love the variety of good golf courses and I want to preserve that.
“I do this kind of as a public service. There are plenty of architects who would be here, just to say they are working here, or have changed something because that’s the most important thing they’ve done.
“I’m here for the opposite reason. I’m here to preserve what’s here and hope that someone in 50 years’ time will treat my golf courses in the same way – instead of changing a bunker to say they have worked on it!”
Captions: Top, Tom Doak (second right) with Sam Rhodes, Woodhall Spa courses manager (right), and members of Doak's team. From left, Angela Moser, Eric Iverson and Brian Schneider.
Below, work on the course: