Perched up in the Santa Clara mountains in Santa Cruz, California, is a little 6500 yard Alister MacKenzie gem you may have heard about. The fact that MacKenzie lived out the last years of his life along the 6th hole and had his ashes spread over the course says a lot about this place and what it meant to him. On our latest trip to the Monterey Peninsula, we took the one-hour drive north to Santa Cruz to see what all the fuss is about.
As you drive up Pasatiempo Drive, you’re treated to a glimpse of the unique and dramatic Mackenzie bunkering before pulling into their unsuspecting parking lot. We were greeted by some nice young chaps at the bag drop and in the clubhouse, and I definitely felt a sense of pride in their local gem.
We caught a beautifully calm and cool morning, and although the fog resting in the treetops blocked our view of the Pacific Ocean from the first tee box, it provided a serene feel to our round.
When teeing it up at Pasa, you’ll want to have your A-game right out of the gates. On this cool, damp morning, the course felt much longer than the scorecard indicated and drew down our morning coffee buzz faster than anticipated.
The first par-3 you’ll face at the 3rd hole is 215 yards…uphill. I was in between 4-iron and 5 wood, so played it “strategically” short and left with a 4-iron to try and leave myself a playable pitch, as a miss anywhere else is basically death. Next time I may just pretend this hole is a driveable par-4!
Although at first glance it can appear this way, MacKenzie doesn’t bunker his courses haphazardly. They all have a purpose. A good example of that is the fairway bunker 40-50 yards short of the par-4 4th green, pictured below. From the left side of the fairway, this bunker blends with the left greenside bunker and provides the illusion that it is protecting the front of the green, when in reality it’s not.
Not everything at Pasatiempo is as MacKenzie intended. Even after a restoration by Tom Doak which began in 1996, the many trees that line the 6th, 7th, and 8th holes remain in place, which were never in the original design. They are in place for “safety”, after a freak and fatal golf accident on the 8th green (a very long time ago, I think). This makes for a couple of tight feeling holes, when the original intent was a bit more expansive and interesting. I’ve never really understood the argument for trees providing safety. Trees can create a false sense of security, block sight lines, and generate unexpected ricochets…but I digress.
The par-3 8th tee is a place I could stand and hit balls all day. The inviting green and long sight line up the par-5 9th hole is stunning. Getting on the large 8th green in regulation is the easy part. Getting it in the hole after that is the hard part, as the green features some severe undulations.
One of my favorite holes was the par-4 10th, which features a beautiful semi-blind tee shot over a canyon, shown below.
A solid tee shot down the middle leaves you with a mid-iron approach from a severe right-to-left sloping lie which begs you to rope one into the cavernous bunkers short-left of the green. I took one for the team and did some reconnaissance in those bunkers. The official report — not good. I highly recommend staying out of them.
The mid-back nine winds through some slightly less compelling terrain for a few holes, but even bland terrain isn’t all that bland after MacKenzie is through with it.
The bunkers surrounding the par-5 13th green are pretty rad. They’ll make you think twice about going for this green in two, as catching one of those first bunkers will leave you with that dreaded 40-50 yard bunker shot.
Two of the three front-nine par-3’s are total brutes, so it’s nice that the back-nine tosses in a couple shorter ones. A nice reprieve when trying to put some bandages on your scorecard down the stretch.
The infamous par-4 16th green is a bit of a survival hole when it comes to your scorecard, featuring the most severe green on the course. A lot of people love the bold three-tier design, but it is a bit over the top for my liking. The bottom tier is more of a false front and not a place where a pin could ever be, and if you’re up top and putting down, you’ll need some luck for your ball to stay on the green. Very unique, if nothing else.
I really dig the short par-3 finisher. It’s not too often courses finish with a par-3, let alone one as rugged and beautiful as this. Missing the green anywhere will be penal, but at least you’ll have a short iron in hand.
Pasatiempo easily passed my first test for a great layout – the replay test. I could easily replay the round in my head and distinctly remember each hole. No two holes felt the same, there is good variety, plenty of nuance and many cool architectural features. MacKenzie’s genius shows in many cases of visual deception and his effective use of the land, routing holes over and into the slopes and hills to make the most of the terrain.
There’s no doubt that Pasatiempo is a unique and special place, but is it for everyone? Probably not. It can be downright punishing if you’re not hitting it flush, and you’ll want to be packing a decent short game. The current green fee of $250 (plus another $32 if you want/need to cart — although I recommend walking) is a bit steep to me, and would prevent me from recommending a round here to just anyone.
However, if you’re up for a challenge, have some extra cash in your pocket, and want to experience an interesting and unique layout from one of golf’s most beloved golf course architects, Pasatiempo is your place. I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t truly get to know a course after playing it once, so I have much to learn about this layout, and would consider myself fortunate if the opportunity arose to return and get to know it a little better.