How a leven hole is one of the most strategic holes in golf

March 15, 2020
17th hole National Golf Links of America

Welcome to A Beginner’s Guide to Golf Course Design, where we’ll dig into the history, design and meaning of golf course architecture terms you’ve probably heard before but might not fully understand. We’ll explain all of the above in an accessible Q&A format, and better yet, teach you how to identify these features and plan your attack for the next time you see one, saving you strokes along the way. In this installment, we’re breaking down leven holes.

Another template? What is this one?

A leven template hole is a shorter par-4 bursting with strategy on every shot. From the tee, there is usually a hazard on one side of the fairway or that crosses diagonally from one side to the other. If a player decides to attempt to carry the hazard or keep the shot closer to it, they are usually rewarded with a better view and angle of attack into the green. There is, of course, the option to play it safe, but the angle will be bad, and often the shot will be semi-blind over a mound, hill or high-faced bunker guarding the green. These hills often make landing short difficult or impossible, as balls that hit the front will be rejected, and balls that hit the back of the hill are sent far over the back of the green. 

In his book, The Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald, George Behto defines a leven hole, saying:

“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 semiblind approach over a high bunker or sand hill to the short side of the green.”

As always, there are many versions of the hole, and some fit more closely to the original hole than others. Perhaps in description of some other great leven holes, we can see how they differ, but how the strategic elements stay similar. 

Where does that name come from?

Leven comes from the name of a town in Scotland that is only a 30-minute drive from St. Andrews. It is at the Leven Golf Club that Macdonald found his inspiration for the fantastic template hole.

Since then, the course has been split, and the original hole is now number 16 on the Lundin Links course, named “Trows.” Playing a measly 311 yards, the original has a burn that runs from short left to back right diagonally across the fairway. It then weaves its way up the right side of the hole, meaning any tee shot to the right brings into play a lot of danger. A large hill sits in front of the left side of the green, obstructing views from the tee and forcing the hole to be all about angles. If you stay down the left with your tee shot, then you will have a semi-blind shot and the hill to deflect shots.

The hole is short, and many can carry the burn, even getting close to the green in the right conditions. But this shot isn’t all safe, either — missing into the left rough means dealing with the front hill, while missing right means dealing with a bunker right of the green.

Let’s discuss some strategy, shall we?

Step one of conquering the leven is recognizing that it’s a leven. Knowing which side of the fairway gives you the best angle of attack means you can start to think about how much risk you are willing to take on. There is no one right way to play a leven, and the conditions and what you’re looking for in the round will all determine how you want to attack the hole. Try to play to your strengths. If you have great driving accuracy, take some extra risk off the tee and try to be in the ideal location for your second shot. If you can hit your irons high and precise, then maybe you don’t have to be as aggressive off the tee. As always, the key is confidence. Make a decision, then be confident you made the right one.

Any good ones out there?

National Golf Links of America No. 17

Named “Peconic” for the terrific view of the bay from the tee, there is no burn to work with, but Macdonald instead built two bunkers on the right side that players must lay up of or try to carry. Shots left short may find a series of small pot bunkers that are deadly.

St Louis Country Club No. 11

The par-4 11that St. Louis Country Club is another wonderful leven hole. The hole is played from an elevated tee box to a rising fairway, with bunkering guarding the ideal line down the right side. The front left of the green is guarded by mounding built in by Macdonald.

Mid Ocean Club No. 14

Macdonald’s Bermuda beauty features a leven template hole of its own. The 14thhole is only 357 yards but has some difficult bunkering and hills on the front right of the green. The best angle of approach is keeping the ball down the left side of the fairway. Even if you can’t make par, at least you’re in Bermuda.

Boston Golf Club No. 5

One fantastic non-Macdonald leven is at Gil Hanse’s Boston Golf Club. At the hole named “Shipwreck” for its creative green shape, players are pitted up against a short par-4. The hole curves its way to the right around massive hills and bunkers. But the green shape insists you keep it down this side for the best angle of approach. An approach from the left brings the right greenside bunker into play.

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