Pasatiempo: Alister Mackenzie’s Beautifully Restored Masterpiece is one of California’s Finest Courses

I’ll come right out and say it. Next to Pebble Beach, my favorite course in California is Pasatiempo Golf Club.

In the wake of a 10-year restoration led by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, Pasatiempo, described by Doak as “the most personal of (Alister) Mackenzie’s designs,” is like a fuzzy photograph that’s been brought into focus by an expert restorer. The golf course, one of the finest classically designed courses in the nation, is a worthy tribute to the Scottish doctor’s genius.

Situated at the top of Monterey Bay less than an hour’s drive north from the peninsula’s more famous venues, Pasatiempo (loosely translated as “passing the time” in Spanish) is one of the few public-access layouts built by Alister Mackenzie. When his s working days were done, Mackenzie retired to a modest home alongside the sixth fairway. The club, opened in 1929, remained one of his favorite places in golf. Were he to return, he’d be happy to see his design principles embodied in the makeover completed in 2008 by Doak and his team, who used old photographs and drawings to recreate long-lost features.

Routed on sloping terrain in the Santa Cruz hills, Pasatiempo’s tree-lined fairways serve up magnificent views of coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Don’t be deceived by the scorecard: This semi-private club plays much longer than its listed yardage from the championship tees at 6,500 yards, par 70. The tip-off is the course and slope rating (72.3/140) from the tips. Unless you’re a single-digit handicapper, stick with the middle tees at 6,125 yards. From any set of markers, the layout delivers one intricate, fascinating hole after another. Nothing can touch the seaside splendor of Cypress Point, but in truth, the rollicking greens and risk-reward scenarios at Pasatiempo are as good, if not better.

Mackenzie, who mastered the art of camouflage while serving as a field surgeon during the Boer War, applied what he knew about concealment and optical illusion to golf course design. The first hole, a long downhill par 4 flanked by huge cypress and eucalyptus trees, looks hard but in fact is rated one of the easier holes on the course. In his book, Golf Architecture, Mackenzie writes, “…it is an important thing in golf to make holes look much more difficult than they really are. People get more pleasure doing a hole which looks almost impossible, and yet is not so difficult as it appears.”

The par-3 third hole, 214 yards from the tips, is justly rated the toughest one-shotter on the course. The tee shot is played uphill to a topsy-turvy green embraced by deep bunkers. Mackenzie’s bunkers, both in their aesthetic flair and clever positioning, are both eye-catching and naturalistic. They remain the envy of modern-age designers. It’s no accident that Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf were responsible for the creation of several world-class courses while working on the Pasatiempo restoration, including Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and Ballyneal.

Alister Mackenzie's magnificent bunkers have been restored at Pasatiempo

Mackenzie, no shrinking violet when it came to his work, said, “…good golfers consider the second nine holes at Pasatiempo the finest in existence.” This stretch moves to higher ground and presents a sequence of one thrilling hole after another, the fairways spliced by deep, wooded ravines grazed by goats rather than a traditional maintenance crew. Several of the greens are wickedly contoured. Clearly, Mackenzie wanted players in possession of a good short game to have a fair chance against big hitters.


For me, the par-4 11th, a slight dogleg to the left, belies the yardage at 392 yards and shows how Mackenzie cleverly used the terrain to create a backbone for each hole. The broad, listing fairway here climbs a hill and asks players to vault a ravine (usually from a sidehill lie) and find a lolling, oblong green skewed to the line of play and well-defended by bunkers.

Even by Mackenzie’s discerning standards, the best two-shot hole at Pasatiempo is the 16th, a down-and-up par 4 rated the number one handicap hole. After a blind, downhill tee shot, the approach is played over a ball-swallowing arroyo to a restored triple-tiered green defended by gaping sand pits. This splendid conception demands two fine long shots and two well-gauged putts in return for par. “It is the successful negotiation of difficulties, or apparent ones, which give rise to pleasureable excitement and makes a hole interesting,” Mackenzie wrote. He added that memorable holes are “usually those in which a great advantage can be gained in successfully accomplishing heroic carries over hazards of an impressive appearance.”

The barranca at the 16th certainly qualifies as an impressive hazard, though what the architect described in his writings as the “long handicap man” can lay up short of the chasm and hit his third shot to the green. This option fulfills Mackenzie’s notion of a versatile golf hole. “An ideal hole,” he wrote, “should provide an infinite variety of shots according to the varying positions of the tee, the situation of the flag, the direction and strength of the wind, etc.” By any measure, Pasatiempo’s 16th is an ideal hole.

With characteristic iconoclasm, Mackenzie concludes Pasatiempo with a heroic par three, a 169-yard finale that plays across a deeply-incised ravine to a large putting surface replete with subtle undulations. It’s a grand stage on which to conclude a match, and adventurous match-play golf is what Mackenzie had in mind when he laid out Pasatiempo. Because greens and tees are close together, this rugged course can be walked by fit players. Caddies can be arranged through the golf shop.

Annual site of the Western Intercollegiate Invitational (Tiger Woods competed here while attending Stanford), Pasatiempo is revered by Californian-born players ranging from Johnny Miller to Juli Inkster. Every hole on the course has a different character, yet all 18 mesh together. The grandeur of the layout’s hilly terrain and perilous hazards, coupled with the exquisite surroundings–towering trees, shaded glens, ocean views–combine to provide a majestic setting for the game. Even local surfers set their boards aside on occasion to sample its delights. Details:


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