An in-depth look at Macdonald’s Leven template with Brett Hochstein and Jon Cavalier
When it comes to golf course architecture, it doesn’t get much geekier than MacRaynor templates. It should come s no surprise that I love the templates, and the one I love most of all is the Leven. In an age when length is dominating the consciousness of the game, the Leven stands as a testament to strategic principles. I have not yet met one that isn’t one of my favorite holes, and I wanted to learn more.
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) recently visited Lundin Links, where Macdonald found his inspiration for the template. Brett graciously contributed a terrific field report. There is no bigger MacRaynor fan who I know than Jon Cavalier, and so of course, I hit him up to do a tour of Levens from his travels. Many thanks to them both for helping expand our knowledge, and for indulging my geeky impulse.
Enjoy the Leven!
The Original ‘Leven’ by Brett Hochstein, Hochstein Design
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 one, the green is barely visible behind a hill offset to the left, and only just 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 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 aforementioned burn runs across the hole on a diagonal going from closer left to further right before curling up the right side the rest of the way. 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.
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.
I found the 16th at Lundin to be a very clever and simple hole utilizing two natural features to perfect harmony. It is no wonder MacDonald used this hole to inspire one of the more strategically interesting holes at the highly strategic National Golf Links, the short 17th named “Peconic.” If I had a criticism of this original “Leven,” though, it would be to open up more of the right side beyond the burn crossing. The reward is greater the further right one hugs the creek, which is a good risk/reward dynamic.
Making the hole too easy would not be much of an issue either as someone who carelessly bombs it too far down the right would be punished by having to negotiate the front right green side bunker and a green that falls away from that angle. The problem with this is most likely safety related, as the 2nd green sits just across the burn and in the danger zone of long wayward tee shots. The 17th tee, which is located to the right of the 16th green, also complicates issues by coming more into play the further right and down the hole you are. Thus, you have the rough and a bunker that has been added sometime after the 2006 aerial that Google Earth provides. In that aerial, it also looks possible that the rough was mowed down in that area and was possibly even fairway. Even considering the issues, I would still love to see the extra width.
As it is though, 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 negated 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.
These photos and descriptions originally appeared on Jon’s wonderful Twitter series #TemplateTuesday. Follow Jon at @LinksGems.
(click on photo collages to enlarge)
The 5th at Chicago Golf Club
The superb 5th at Chicago Golf, which proves that a great hole does not require unique, or even interesting, terrain – only the imagination of a great architect.
The 6th at The Course at Yale
The 6th at Yale, a dogleg left, has been blunted somewhat over time – a restoration would do wonders for this hole.
The 11th at St. Louis Country Club
St. Louis CC’s 11th plays from an elevated tee to an uphill fairway, illustrating the adaptability of this template.
The 16th at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club
Blue Mound has several excellent templates, and its 16th, guarded by a large mound and bunker, is no exception.
The 13th at Old Macdonald
The template remains relevant today, as seen in modern renditions of this like Old Mac’s 13th.
The 14th at Mid Ocean Club
Mid Ocean’s 14th drifts right, forcing the player left toward fairway bunkers for an optimum angle of approach.
The 12th at Fox Chapel Golf Club
Fox Chapel’s 12th is one of the most dramatic versions of this template, built across heaving land with a severe falloff right.
The 2nd at Yeamans Hall Club
The 2nd at Yeamans Hall is a more subtle rendition of the template, reflecting its bucolic, lowcountry setting.
The 14th at Camargo Club
The uphill 14th at Camargo lacks the typical fairway bunkering but maintains the same strategic principles.
The 3rd at Shoreacres
Shoreacres’s 3rd is a terrific example of a Leven hole built across flat ground; this green is also exceptional.
The 5th at Boston Golf Club
The best iteration of a modern Leven style hole is the 5th at Boston GC – strategic considerations abound on this par-4.
The 17th at National Golf Links of America
Saving the best for last, the 17th at NGLA is the paradigmatic Leven, and one of the greatest hols in the world.
Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf