Pasatiempo, Santa Cruz. Alister MacKenzie, 1929.

This course is so good that the man who designed it—the man who also designed Cypress Point, Augusta National, Crystal Downs, and Royal Melbourne—chose to make his home here, right off the sixth fairway.

I first saw Pasa in 1994 on a family trip where we weren’t playing golf but we had stopped at several of the other notable public courses along the coast in Monterey and stopped in up the road here in Santa Cruz, as well. It was, honestly, underwhelming. Trees choked the first and ninth holes. The net separating the driving range from the first fairway was not in great shape. The fairways looked narrow, the bunkers plain. It looked a lot more like the muni I played at home than the top course it was billed as, especially in comparison to the other top courses we’d just stopped in and ogled, like Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. It didn’t look like a course built by the same guy who had laid out Cypress Point.

Just a few years later, the club hired Tom Doak for restoration work that was completed in 2007. What he brought back is incredible. Note the change at the fifth hole, in the below slideshow.

When I came back, many years later, I had seen pictures of the restoration, so it wasn’t like I was expecting the course to look like my memories from 1994, but still just the first glimpse from the entrance gate took my breath away. From the gate you look across the second fairway to the third green and the deep puzzle piece bunkers cut into the hill around it. It’s the kind of place where you start to get a tingly feeling at the back of your neck, just driving in.

The first is perhaps not one of golf’s greatest holes, but it is surely one of the great tee shots in the game. The tee sits just outside the pro shop high above the fairway and on a clear day Monterey Bay sparkles in the distance.

If you’ve had some time to peruse the clubhouse before your round you may have looked at a drawing from Doak’s design group suggesting how the first hole may once have played, or at least an option for how it could play, if the club had been willing to remove the range and the trees that guard it down the left. Or you may have seen other photos that show how the first and ninth fairways were originally essentially one big field. It is not so today. But then again it is much better than it was when I saw it 25 years ago.

That the front nine is much more narrow now than its original design intent, especially at the sixth and seventh holes, is undeniable. But apart from that, the outward nine is really marvelous golf, highlighted by the trio of par 3s and the par-4 second hole. The drive at the second is downhill but mostly blind—you can see some fairway out to the left but you want to keep your ball down the right side to set up your approach shot, because the green is open from that side. The green is the first roller coaster affair of many you’ll face throughout the day.

The third is the first of the course’s stellar one-shot holes. Though on the card at 215 yards it is back uphill and so plays more like 230 to a sliver of a green with the aforementioned beautiful and horrifying bunkers set around it. You don’t want to miss it low, but missing it on the high side is worse.

Doak’s restoration work shows out at #3 (Credit: Pasatiempo GC)

The fifth is another long and uphill par 3, though shorter than the third and with a bigger green. There’s a large bunker set right in front and a tongue of green set to the right of the the bunker that teases you, but that’s all false front. Any shot not past the front bunker will ultimately not stay on the green.

The final par 3 on the front side is the eigth, which plays downhill, and has the most audacious green you’ve seen yet, which is saying something. The green is sort of L-shaped and banked so that a really clever player could in theory get their ball to a back right hole location by playing off the slope on the left side of the green. But misfire and find one of the bunkers around the green or end up on the wrong portion of the green and you could be in for an adventure here.

But while the front nine at Pasatiempo is very, very good, the great realization you have as you walk across the street to the 10th tee is that the famous nine on the property, the nine that everyone says is really good, is the back nine.

The drive at the 10th is over a small canyon and to the top of a hill then down to, again, an absolutely wild green. The slope in the green is probably helpful in getting a ball to the left side (which is hidden behind a series of bunkers), but when the hole is on that right side, you’re just in trouble.

The drive on #10 is intimidating but the carry is not as long as it looks (Credit: Golf Tripper)

Number 11 is the longest hole under 400 yards I’ve ever played, and maybe the best. You drive uphill to a fairway with a deep barranca down the left side. The second shot is over the barranca and steeply uphill. The closer you play to the barranca on your drive, the better angle you have in to the green for your second shot, while if you shy away from the ravine, your angle gets worse—you end up coming in over a deep bunker to a green set at a shallow angle. The green has a nasty false front and can make you look silly in a hurry. On the other hand, the fairway is plenty wide and the barranca is not terribly hard to carry. A player content to make bogey could easily hit a short drive, lay up well short of the green and chip on without bringing too much trouble into play.

The 12th plays back down the hill to a narrowing fairway. You have to be precise with your tee shot so that trees don’t block your second, which must carry a small dry ravine to a lobed green that, as the member I played with demonstrated to me, has its own version of the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot where putts appear to break uphill. The 13th is the lone par 5 on the back and features some of the most beautiful MacKenzie bunkering on the course, as well as a green where holes can be tucked in all sort of maddening locations.

This swale running through the fairway on #14 is one of golf’s great hidden features

At the 14th, the barranca again determines play. Here it is grassed over and cuts right through the fairway landing area. It is 8 feet deep or so, possible to recover from, but hard to see out of and just deep enough that you don’t love hitting a mid- or long-iron out of it. To avoid being down in that depression, you can drive down the right side of the fairway. The punishment from over there is a bad angle in, like at 11 you’ll be coming in over bunkers to a shallow green. If you come in from the left side of the fairway, the green is open in front, but you either have to hit it quite far to carry the depression, or take your chance at playing from the low area to have the good angle.

Short but treacherous, #15

15 is a classic short hole set back in a wooded area with a devilishly small front corner to the green and some beautiful bunkers.

And then you take a couple of steps onto the 16th tee. The drive on 16 is simple enough—a bit blind to the top of a hill and if you can turn it over right-to-left, then all the better. Then you crest the hill and get a look at the green and understand why Dr. Mac once called this his favorite two-shot hole he ever built. The green is set on the far side of a creek and a huge gnarly bunker. It is the most massively three-tiered green I have ever seen. Pictures cannot do it justice. It is one thing to be intimidated by trouble around a green, a whole other thing to be intimidated by the prospect of hitting a green improperly. You certainly do not want to come up short and watch your ball run back down the tiers to the bottom, but you also very much do not want to be long. And so once you’ve seen the green then the importance of the tee shot is never lost on you again.

#16 green from the left side

The 17th is much more subtle, but effectively so after the drama of the 16th. The hole is uphill and straight away, with a fairway that cants from left to right. The green is narrow but very deep and the further back the hole gets the narrower it becomes and the steeper the drop off gets to the right of the green. There’s also a wicked spine through the middle of the green that gives fits to the many shots that miss the green to either side.

And finally the 18th is the last of the course’s stellar one shot holes. The tee shot is played again over the barranca that defines so much of the back nine to a green with dramatic bunkers in front and behind, but the real focus is the wicked green, which is sloped heavily from back to front with a few twisted spines thrown in for good measure. Being above the hole is not advised.

The green at #18 is slick back to front (Credit: Golf Pass)

It all adds up to one of the great golf experiences you can have anywhere. It’s not cheap, but even at full price it is half the cost of Pebble Beach. It looks short on the scorecard, but doesn’t play short (par 70, lots of uphill shots). And it packs plenty of challenge (check the scores the collegiate players put up when they come here for the Western Intercollegiate—they are by no means tearing the place up).

The first time I played here, I stepped on the first tee and immediately started thinking, “Is there any way I could retire to Santa Cruz and be a member here?” Then the course beat my brains in for 18 holes. And it didn’t slow my retirement dreams at all. Living out your days in Santa Cruz and on the greens of Pasatiempo? Even Dr. Mac knew you can’t beat that.

California 1st Quintile [2019]