L is for Lion’s Mouth
The term “Lion’s Mouth” hails from the famous pot at The Old Course’s No. 13. Ironically enough, that bunker has little to do with the “Lion’s Mouth” template. And yet the 13th, “Hole O’ Cross,” is still considered the origin of the template. Confused yet? Let’s break it down.
St Andrews Old Course 13th hole - image courtesy of St Andrews Links Trust/David Cannon
Today, a “Lion’s Mouth” bunker is one that is at least partially embedded in the front of the green, so that the player can play a ground approach to the left or right, but certainly not center. The original “Lion’s Mouth” bunker,” however, sits 40 yards out from the massive double green at O’ Cross, which is shared with the 5th hole. More telling in the design of Hole O’ Cross is the fescue-filled trench that cuts into the green, partially dividing the peninsular outcropping of green on the left from the putting surface on the right. This hazard serves to emphasize the importance of pin position, and what the player should do from the tee. If the pin is left, players should stay to the right of the fairway’s notorious “Coffins” bunkers. If the pin is right, the players will want to carry the Coffins and approach from their left side. And, perhaps most importantly, there is plenty of depth to this green. Playing to the center is always smarter than attacking frontward pins (less fun, of course).
Both the grass trench and the “Lion’s Mouth” bunker serve a similar purpose in this case: to dissuade a ground approach. The nearness of the trench makes it the signature hazard of a “Lion’s Mouth” template, however.
Fortunately, Seth Raynor would unify the concepts when creating his own Lion’s Mouth holes during the Golden Age, bringing the bunker back to the green. Fox Chapel Golf Club has recently restored the namesake bunker at No. 9, to a version that creates more factors than just angle of approach. The green is angled from front-left to back-right, bisected by a ridge that separates higher and lower halves. The large triangular bunker offers a far wider runway into the green from the left side, but players must also consider ball control, as that approach will roll downhill to the flag. Flags on the left offer two possibilities: The traditional route would be a loft from the right, but the wider fairway strip to the left of the Lion’s Mouth makes the ground-approach feasible for confident runners.
Fox Chapel Golf Club 9th hole - image courtesy of Spencer Hennen
The more famous Raynor rendition (perhaps because Fox Chapel’s disappeared for some time) is at the Country Club of Charleston, where it gathered notice during the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open. It is also perhaps the most dramatic example. The title bunker at No. 16 is set almost entirely into the green, with left-and-right entryways that double as false fronts, because the putting surface sits atop a slight ridge (additional bunkers at the front-left and front-right further deter the ground approach). The same logic applies upon aerial approach (attack left-to-right or right-to-left, and always consider playing toward the center of the green), but fairway bunkers complicate finding the correct position for the approach. To end up on the left side of the fairway is relatively simple... play a distance between 250 and 320 yards from the tee. The right side is more complicated, however. Players must decide whether to lay up short of the bunker at 280 yards (creating an approach of 195) or try to get around/over the bunker for a shorter approach.
Country Club of Charleston 16th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw opted to go shorter at Sand Hills Golf Club’s No. 8 hole (367 yards), but added an extra challenge to each side of the fairway. As with O’ Cross, the left side of the green stretches out farther than the right. Those teeing off to the right side of the fairway must always carry a pair of bunkers to find the best angle to the left of the green. If the flag is at the front-left, however, they must also balance going too far (and requiring a forced carry of the Lion’s Mouth to reach the flag) and laying up too short (and finding the fairway bunkers). When playing to rightward flags, teeing off too far left may result in a blind shot created by one of the title “Sand Hills.”
Sand Hills Golf Club 8th hole - image courtesy of Stonehouse Golf/Pat Drickey
Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner doubled-down on the Lion’s Mouth’s strategy when creating a Par 5 version at Rustic Canyon. A “boomerang” green wraps around the central bunker at No.13, as expected, but the decision whether to go for eagle makes this a more complicated equation from tee-to-green. First, players must deal with Lion’s Mouth more similar to the original, before considering the green. From the tee, the centerline bunker (280 yards out) divides the fairway into two routes, wider left and thinner right. To attack a pin on the left side (to attack the right side in two is a pipe dream), the player must thread the bunker and the right rough for the most straightforward route. Those taking the safe three-shot route must still deal with the Lion’s Mouth template’s traditional strategic ploy, finding the correct angle to attack the pin.
MAYBE… MAYBE NOT
Augusta National has seen many tweaks over the years, and the No. 9 green has changed as much as any hole on the property. Carolina Cherry's green currently features a steep uphill slope from front-to-back with two leftward bunkers, but the original featured one of Alister MacKenzie’s signature “boomerang” greens, which employed a strategy similar to the green at O’ Cross. A bunker cut into the green to separate the left peninsula from the front-right...but then that bunker continued to wrap around the front of the green and around the left side. Does it still count as a Lion’s Mouth if it requires a forced carry? Or, as Lion’s Mouths were designed to require an aerial attack anyhow, was it the next logical step in the Lion’s Mouth’s evolution? Maybe we’ll never know.
Augusta National Golf Club 9th hole - image courtesy of Augusta National Inc.
The Boomerang-shape green obviously suits a Lion’s Mouth Par 4 well, as there’s a logical location for the placement of the necessary hazard. But the direction of that boomerang is essential. For example, MacKenzie’s famed green at Crystal Downs does not apply, as the bunker is set into the right side of the green, not the front. The difference in flag position here dictates a control of approach distance, and approach angle less so. Likewise, No. 9 at Harbour Town features a green complete inverse to MacKenzie’s No. 9. Land in the wrong corner of Pete Dye’s green and you’ll have a tricky two-putt. But featuring the bunkers at the back means there is less threat to a second shot that comes up short.Dye’s No. 18 at Crooked Stick provides another example of a faux-Lion’s Mouth. The first example of the designer’s frequented Cape closer, there is indeed a small bunker that seems to divide the approach possibilities to the green. But consider the logistics: In order for a player to approach to the left of the greenside bunker, they would need to have driven their tee shot 440 yards. The only options to logically reach this green in GIR are either to the right (between the bunker and the water hazard) or over the bunker. The bunker serves more to ensure there is no safe way home than to direct traffic. It’s a tad too penal for this template’s strategic intent.