In an age when length is dominating the consciousness of the game, the Leven stands as a testament to strategic principles. Whenever employed, it is among the most fun templates to play.
To understand this template, a good place to start is with George Bahto’s wonderful book about the life and work of C.B. Macdonald, The Evangelist of Golf. In it, the Leven is described as follows:
“Leven is a short par 4, usually 330 to 360 yards. Fairway bunker or waste area challenges golfer to make a heroic carry for an open approach to the green. Less courageous line from the tee leaves golfer with a semi-blind approach over a high bunker or sand hill to the short side of the green. Usually a moderately undulating surface with least accessible cup placement behind sand hill.”
An opportunity to dive even deeper arose when Architect Brett Hochstein (@hochsteindesign) visited Lundin Links, where Macdonald found his inspiration for the template. Brett graciously contributed a terrific field report.
“The Original Gangster” – 16th at Lundin Links – 311 yards – Par 4
Charles Blair MacDonald’s inspiration for his “Leven” template can be traced back to Scotland’s southern Fife coast, where a long stretch of linksland joins the two towns of Leven and Lundin Links. Until 1909, the two towns and respective clubs shared 18 holes over the narrow strip of land known as the Innerleven Links. It was at that point that increased play and congestion led to the decision to add holes inland and create two separate 18 hole courses, one for each of the towns. What would later become known as the Leven template was actually on the Lundin Links side of the split and would permanently become the 16th hole (it was the 7th when starting from the Leven side of the links).
The original Leven, known to the Lundin Golf Club as “Trows,” is somewhat hard to figure out upon first sight. For starters, the green is barely visible behind a hill offset to the left, and only the top of the flag can be seen from the elevated medal (back) tees. From the left forward tees, it would not be out of question to think upon first glance that the hole plays to the nearby 2nd green on the right. It is this blindness though, along with a burn (stream) running diagonally across the landing area, that give the hole its unique strategy that would be replicated numerous times by Macdonald, Seth Raynor, and others.
The view from the back tee on Lundin's 16th - Photo Credit: Brett Hochstein
The hole is not very long, especially by today’s standards, but it is all about placement of the tee shot. The hill that fronts the green causes two problems: discomfort with the lack of sight and a downslope covered in rough that will either snag short shots or kick them forward and through the green. The hill is slightly offset from the fairway though, which leaves a little opening from the right side where a ball could either bounce on or settle safely short. Generally, the further right and further down the hole you are, the more the green opens up and comes into sight, making the shot both easier and more comfortable. So, play it long and down the right side. Sounds simple enough, right? Of course, it wouldn’t be quite as interesting of a hole if just for that.
The 16th from above, with the burn cutting diagonally across - Photo Credit: Lundin Links
The aforementioned burn runs across the hole on a diagonal going from closer left to further right before curling up the right side of the length of the hole. This puts it much more in play around the ideal landing area, either punishing or rewarding the more aggressive play further down the right. A more conservative play short and left will result in a blind, often downwind shot over more of the grassy hill with no room to land the ball short.
For the shorter players laying up short of the burn, the approach or layup is a difficult one, as the fairway beyond the burn slopes left to right with the green sitting high and left. A well-played shot drawing into the slope though will find a narrow upper plateau, and if long enough and properly shaped, may even find the green itself.
This narrow plateau is also the ideal landing area for the long hitter (excepting those 300 yard drivers who can just go after the green, which would be very tough to pull off but certainly fun to try). Getting to this plateau needs either a laser straight carry of about 220 yards or a helping draw played into the slope. Draw it too much though, and the left rough and hill is jail. Drift a little too far right and catch the slope, and the ball will kick down into the right rough while also bringing the right greenside bunker more into play.
Short of the green on the upper left fairway plateau - Photo Credit: Brett Hochstein
The green isn’t overly large and is defended by four bunkers that are almost evenly spaced around the perimeter. The right greenside bunker is the most important as it guards the right side entry and punishes players who go too long down the right side of the hole. The back and left bunkers prevent players from playing too safely over the hill. They actually sit a little bit above the green, which makes for an awkward and difficult to control recovery shot. The putting surface itself is not overly wild with contouring but has some nice internal variation to keep things interesting. It has a slight overall right to left slope as well, which gives a little help for those trying to navigate around the front hill to find a left hole location.
From the green looking back over the fronting mound - Photo Credit: Brett Hochstein
The 16th at Lundin is a very clever and simple hole utilizing two natural features in perfect harmony. It is no wonder Macdonald used this hole to inspire one of the more interesting holes at the highly strategic National Golf Links, the short 17th named “Peconic.”
This is a great hole and one that would be fun to play on a daily basis, especially during a dry summer with a trailing wind, both of which would make the hill fronting the green exponentially more difficult to navigate. Even when calm though, the hole’s short length is offset by the burn, sloping fairway, and bunkers, which all make the ideal second shot landing areas effectively small and difficult to find. Play aggressively, and a punishment is likely. It is vexing on its own, but coupling that with the variable and often strong Scottish wind leaves you with a hole where you are very happy to run away with a 4.
Restraint and thought are two skills not often tested enough in golf, especially in modern design. The 16th at Lundin Links tests both, and that is its greatest quality.
National Golf Links of America – 17th – 375 yards
Macdonald’s Leven at NGLA, named Peconic, is his most artistic and arguably his most challenging. The hole plays downhill angling left to right. The fronting mound is exposed sand and hides a set of nasty pot bunkers.
The downhill tee shot on the 17th at The National - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Bunkers hiding behind the sandy mound short right - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The gorgeous look back up the hill to the iconic windmill - - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Chicago Golf Club – 5th – 320 yards
Chicago Golf’s Leven plays uphill with an angled bunker right along the aggressive line. The green on the 5th, with its internal spine and contours is not only one of the best at CGC, it is one of the best in golf.
The view from the tee on Chicago Golf's Leven 5th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The mound fronting the green left includes an embedded bunker - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The view from above reveals the incredible green contours - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The Course at Yale – 6th – 421 yards
Raynor’s Leven at Yale swings left around a defended corner. Take on the fairway hazard to avoid dealing the hillside bunkering short right on approach.
The view from the tee with fairway sweeping left - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The bunker guarding the front right of the green - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Looking back downhill from the green at Raynor's 6th at Yale - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
St. Louis Country Club – 11th – 389 yards
On the uphill 11th at Macdonald’s SLCC throws a wrinkle at players with the two bunkers up the right side ready to grab tee balls from players looking to gain an angle advantage. In true Macdonald fashion, the front left mounding has artistic flair.
The uphill tee shot on St. Louis CC's Leven - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Approaching the green from the right fairway bunker - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Looking back down the hill from the Leven green - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Blue Mound Golf & Country Club – 16th – 355 yards
Blue Mound’s Leven is one of Raynor’s simplest designs tee to green with the entire left side of the hole open. The difficulty of this version is at the green. A subtle left slope feeds into the bunker and an internal spine makes lag putting tricky.
The tee shot on Raynor's open but tricky Leven 16th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The bunker and mound short right of the green - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Approaches need to be in the right section of the green to have a chance at birdie - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Mid Ocean Club – 14th – 357 yards
Another artful Macdonald creation, the Leven at Mid Ocean sits in a small valley and works its way uphill to the right. The green is defended by mounding and bunkers that are as beautiful as they are penal.
The view from the tee on Mid Ocean's 14th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The approach with mounded bunkering waiting to grab weak flares - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The front right bunkering, with Macdonald flair - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Fox Chapel G.C. – 12th – 344 yards
This under the radar Raynor gem is packed with soldi templates, including the Leven 12th. It plays along a side hill that feeds tee shots into a right hand bunker. That bunker must be challenged for the best angle into the benched green.
The view from the tee with the fairway working across the hillside - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Short of the green with the mound guarding the high side - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The view from back left of Fox Chapel's 12th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Yeamans Hall Club – 2nd – 362 yards
The Leven on Raynor’s low country masterwork may be simple, but it’s not short on challenge. The 2nd plays to the left and then to a green with nuanced contours. A scoring chance, but no lay down.
From the 2nd tee at Yeamans - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The open right entrance to the green - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Looking back down across the low country - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Camargo Club – 14th – 390 yards
Camargo is where Seth Raynor’s most elegant templates can be found, including the Leven 14th. It plays up and over a hill and then swings down to the green right. A gaping bunker protects the front right of the green.
The up-and-over drive on the Leven 14th at Camargo - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The hazard to avoid on approach - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The green has plenty of contour to deal with - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Shoreacres – 3rd – 312 yards
One of the shortest Levens is also one of the most fun. Shoreacres 3rd plays straightaway with bunkers on both sides. The green is drivable with the right wind, but overzealous shots that miss the mark have difficult bunkers lying in wait.
Options abound off the tee on the 3rd at Shoreacres - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The mound hides the green, and a nasty bunker short right - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The severely canted green dishes out punishment for approaches that land above the hole - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Old Macdonald – 13th – 346 yards
Tom Doak and Jim Urbina put their special twist on the Leven on their course inspired by C.B. Macdonald. The mound left of the green obscures shots from the right, but can also be used to feed balls onto the green.
Fairway bunkering is penal on the Doak-Urbina Leven - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Short left of the green, with feeder slope available for use by the crafty player - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Plenty of cant and contour on the 13th - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Boston Golf Club – 5th – 317 yards
The Leven 5th at BGC is named Shipwreck for a reason. There are numerous ways to wreck a card on this shortie from Gil Hanse. Severe bunkers and mounding down the right must be challenged for the best angle into the extremely narrow green.
The blind drive on Gil Hanse's Leven at Boston Golf - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
Mounding and bunkers stand sentry on the front right of the green - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier
The trench bunker behind gets plenty of action with a green this shallow - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier