Sunday, January 22, 2006

Our Idea of Winter Golf - Ganton and Woodhall Spa

Bunkers are serious business at Woodhall: wide, deep and penal.

For most golfers the idea of winter golf might include a trip to Hilton Head, Portugal or maybe Florida. Not us. We just returned from a winter trip to the north of England. The British Isles generally don't experience the kind of winters one gets in the Northern U.S., so for us it's a welcome break. While it obviously won't be balmy, we were taking a chance that at least it wouldn't be so cold, gray and windy that we wouldn't be able to play. Our journey began with a red-eye on Friday night from the East Coast of the U.S. Sitting in an upright position in the back of the plane is not an ideal set of conditions for a good night's sleep. Nevertheless, when daylight appears on the horizon as you approach the English coast from the air, it is an exciting moment for us no matter how many times we've done it before.

Woodhall 17
This view of the 17th hole at Woodhall Spa shows that on a beautiful day there are few places better places in the world to have the privilege to tee it up at

As is typically the case, the morning is overcast with a light rain falling as we leave Manchester Airport and begin the three hour journey east to Lincolnshire where Woodhall Spa (#46 in the world) is located. One of the toughest parts of the quest to play the top 100 in the world (aside from playing Augusta) is no doubt getting off a red-eye, driving on the wrong side of the road in poor weather on tight roads. As we head out on the A628 we're amazed that such large trucks can fit on a one lane road (always coming at you in the opposite direction) and manage the hairpin turns with ease. More than once we've run up on curbs or knocked off the mirror on the left side of the car during these journeys. Luckily, our trip to Woodhall is long and tiring but uneventful. Our sense of excitement builds as we pass through the real Sherwood Forest where Woodhall is located near. We arrive to find that Woodhall Spa is a charming Edwardian Spa town with tree lined streets.

In the same way that The National Golf Links of America is the product of Charles Blair Macdonald and Pine Valley is the work of George Crump, so it is with Woodhall Spa and Colonel Stafford Hotchkin in the early part of the 20th century. Built on sandy soil, it is a fantastic heathland course with J.H. Taylor and H.S. Colt having had a hand in the design. It reminded us of Sunningdale and has quite a few Pine Valley type forced carries over sand and scrub to reach the fairways. It is set in a peaceful wooded area with silver birch, pine, heather and gorse in the English countryside. There are walking trails throughout the course for use by the locals. More than once while we were playing, townspeople would come walking through with their Wellington boots and dogs. Rather than finding it annoying, we found it a charming, typically English practice. There is no doubt what country you're in when you're playing at Woodhall Spa. The weather was in the mid 50's and it was slightly overcast. The smell of peat fires was lingering in the air. While those back home were still sleeping, we had been transported to a different world. For anyone who wants to experience golf in splendid isolation, Woodhall Spa is the place for you. It is the antithesis of the modern golf courses which are often times sadly an excuse for a housing development. Woodhall Spa meanders along the natural terrain. Colonel Hotchkin has also mastered the art of bunkering. The bunkers at Woodhall Spa are truly penal. As an example, the 12th green with bunkering is illustrated below.

Woodhall 8
The beauty of the environment of Woodhall Spa shines through. A sea of heather fronts the fairway on the 8th hole

Woodhall Spa has only three par three holes but taken together they may represent the best collection of par threes on any course we've played thus far. Unless you hit a perfect shot, the balls feed into the deep bunkers. Fair; but you must hit a very good shot.

Woodhall Spa 12th hole
The par three 12th hole. Note the deep bunker on the left. The depth is not visible to the unsuspecting golfer 

Woodhall Spa also has a fine collection of short par fours at the end of the round. You stand on the tee and think to yourself that it's a nice way to finish, maybe with a couple of birdies. Not exactly. The design of this hidden gem of a course has once again proven that golf holes don't have to be long to be tough.

We finished the round only because of an adrenaline rush, since by the end of the round, we had more or less been awake for over 40 hours straight. Luckily for us we stayed at the Dower House Hotel which is located off the first fairway of the non-championship course at Woodhall Spa. It is a newly renovated old country house estate. You open the front door and there is a fire burning in the cozy front room and a nice bar nearby. Our first Guinness of the trip was enjoyed in front of the fireplace in a leather chair with a 'Havana' cigar as they call them in England. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. As the song goes, we are quite thankful "there will always be an England."

The next morning, after a proper full English breakfast (without the black pudding), we set off for Ganton, located three hours north up the A164. Although only 90 miles away, the roads follow the contour of the English countryside and wander through the beautiful landscape. We arrived at mid-day and were able to tee off straight away.


Ganton (#62 in the world, built in 1892) is the course where Harry Vardon served as professional between 1892 and 1903. If you don't appreciate who Harry Vardon is, then you had better brush up on your golfing history. One of the greatest players of all time, Vardon won the Open Championship six times. Some of golf's most esteemed architects have had a hand in shaping Ganton including J.H. Taylor, H.S. Colt, Alister McKenzie and James Braid. Located in Yorkshire, Ganton has hosted a Ryder Cup (1949) and a Walker Cup (2003).

We suppose that deep bunkering is part of the character in the north of England because Ganton also has deep, penal and large bunkers in the style of Woodhall Spa. We played Ganton without a caddy in sunny, windy conditions. The winter sun was at a low angle in the sky and the crisp air fills your lungs and is refreshing. No golf carts here. No yardage markers. At Ganton, you're on your own (in a good way). It is pure golf, with no frills. The surrounding countryside is dramatic and peaceful. We particularly like the 258 yard par three 17th where you must hit your tee shot across the entrance road to the course. All the eye can see standing on the tee is a lot of very big bunkers. Not for the faint of heart.

After the round, we retired to the clubhouse to have a sandwich (egg mayonnaise on brown bread). As is the custom for most proper English courses, you must have on a jacket and tie to enter the dining area (even to sit in the men's grill). While it is somewhat annoying when you're hungry and tired, we appreciate that they are trying to uphold the standards and traditions of proper English clubs. The Ganton clubhouse is a throwback to an earlier era, probably not changing much since Vardon's time. We believe it is important that clubs and courses like Ganton remain in the top 100 rankings. It is certainly easy to have courses like this replaced with the newest $20 million Tom Fazio made-for-US-Open-design. To do so would be a shame. The history of the game is important and places like Ganton are standard bearers for upholding its traditions.

We're off on the three hour drive back to Manchester before flying out tomorrow morning. Six hours of driving in one day is a bit much, but you have to be a little nuts to play the top 100. Our hotel outside Manchester turns out to be a shit-hole, but you can't ask for perfection all the time. Once again, we have been very lucky on this trip regarding the transportation and the weather.

Both courses are highly recommended. They are not on the natural circuit you would make playing the Open Championship courses in England, so you must really go out of your way to play them. We recommend doing so if you appreciate the history of the game. We really love the quirkiness of Britain and were not disappointed on this trip. Also, we found the people at both Ganton and Woodhall Spa have treated us as nice as any course in the world so far, although the English don't have the wit of the Scottish!


Robert Thompson said...

OK, this is a cool idea for a blog and let me know if I can help out.

Best and keep posting.


World Top 100 said...

Dear Top 100 Golfer

There are several others who have played the top 100 courses in the world.

- Sunil Kappagoda (2000)
- Alan Heuer (2004)
- Samm Klaparda (1998) - Samm is Norman's wife and is the first woman to have played the top 100

Also, Rich Hoover is the correct spelling and obviously Norm is Klaparda

Best of luck


Good luck...I'll probly see you somewhere along the trail as I've played so many myself.

Jay Flemma
A Walk in the Park

Anonymous said...

Dear Top 100 Golfer

Tom Clasby and Masa Nishijima have also played the top 100 courses in the world. Curious about your question mark around Samm Klaparda and the 'unconfirmed' around Sunil Kappagoda and Alan Heuer. If you check the list of Panelists who rank the top 100 you will see Jimmy Dunne, Bud Thompson, Norm and Samm Klaparda, Tom Clasby, Sunil Kappagoda and Alan Heuer as members. The reason they are on is because they have played the top 100 courses. Bob McCoy and Masa Nishijima are former panelists. They should all be able to attest to each other. Also, Tom Watson can confirm for Alan and you may want to refer to the story written by Sunil about playing the top 100. My sense is that there are a handful of others who have completed the top 100 as well

You may also want to update your top 100 list -- your site lists to 2003 list. I believe the 2005 can be found through

Happy travelling

Anonymous said...

Dear Top 100 Golfer

Garden City Mens Club does allow women (wives of members) to play on certain days. In Samm Klaparda's case, she received special permission from the board and played on a Monday

In case you are interested, Norm and Samm Klaparda, Tom Clasby and Selwyn Herson are from California, Bob McCoy spends most of his time in Florida, Rich Hoover is from York, Pennsylvania, Jimmy Dunne and Sunil Kappagoda are from New York, Alan Heuer is from Connecticut and Masa Nishijima lives in Tokyo. I believe Bud Thompson is from Ohio

Far and Sure

Anonymous said...

The Timber Point Club still exist on south central long island althoug it is probably not the 18 original holes.

Anonymous said...

Tom Clasby has played the top 100 courses in the US on the Golf Digest list since 1969. I would be interested if anyone else has done this.

Anonymous said...

Tom Clasby has played all the US Open Courses that still exist.

Anonymous said...

Tom Clasby has played the top 100 courses in the world on the Golf Magazine list for the years 1983, 1985,1991,1993,1995,1997,1999,2001,2003. He has 9 more course worldwide to finish all the courses from 1979 to the present.

Anonymous said...

Tom Clasby has played the top 100 in the World on the Golf Magazine list since 1979. It includes 183 courses in 30 countries. He is the first to accomplish this.

Anonymous said...

anyone know where you can find the lists from 1979-present?