For a man with design credits of Augusta National and Royal Melbourne on his CV it seems strange to even contemplate there could be something better lurking in his back catalogue of work. But hidden amongst the cypress trees and tall pines in the hills above Santa Cruz, California lies Dr Alister Mackenzie’s greatest triumph. That isn’t my opinion but that of the man himself and his decision to live out his later years overlooking the 6th fairway here is testament to that theory.
Pasatiempo Golf Club isn’t a complete secret. In fact it always features as one of America’s Top 100 Golf Courses in many polls, often in the top echelons. However it keeps a low profile like the man who was its mastermind. Mackenzie had a method for golf course design, a thirteen point checklist that made up his special mix; his Coca Cola formula. Unlike Coke’s secret recipe however, Mackenzie was proud to share his design framework. So much so, it sits on the wall of the clubhouse for visitors to marvel at. Pasatiempo ticks every one of his boxes. Looking down his list I love every point, but there are two in particular that really apply to Pasatiempo and take this already excellent golf course and move it into the golfing aristocracy.
Point number seven; ‘There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost golf balls’. Not only do I love this concept in its entirety, but having played the course, you can only marvel at its brilliant simplicity. Yes there are places a ball may be lost, but looking for a ball in those places would almost certainly end in disappointment (The ravines on the 11th and 18th spring to mind). The course doesn’t need knee deep rough everywhere to make it difficult. Nor does it need countless ponds and pools to swallow up your ball (there are no obvious ponds on the course). Mackenzie’s weapon of destruction is subtlety of green design and apocalyptic green-side bunkering that require a marksman’s accuracy to navigate effectively.
Point number eight; ‘The course should be so interesting that even the scratch player is constantly stimulated to improve his game’. Never have I played a course that needed such accuracy in virtually every shot and mastering this courses subtleties would take more than one lifetime. The margins are fine and the punishments can be severe. For instance, the approach to the Par 3 5th is uphill and measures 190 yards, no mean feat on any course. I hit my best shot of the day there, a firmly struck 5 iron that pitched in the centre of the green about a third into its depth. Still, I conspired to make a double-bogey having watched my ball wander agonisingly back towards me and off the slippery green before rounding a bunker and leaving me staring at a 40 yard pitch across a gaping sandy abyss; most amateur golfers worst nightmare (mine included). There are few freebies here and every putt, chip and drive has to favour a side and avoid a trap. There’s always a place to miss and a place not to miss, but due to Mackenzie’s proficiency in disguise, not all of those places are immediately obvious.
Trying to pick particular highlights of the course is like to asking me to pick my favourite member of England’s World Cup winning football team. Every shot is like every player; iconic, memorable and not easily forgotten. If pressed I would say the tee shot on the 1st would feature in the majority of people’s tales in the pub. A straight drive away from its lofty position aside the clubhouse down towards the curving Monterey coastline, usually either shrouded in swirling sea mist or sparkling in bright Californian sunshine. Then there is the approach to the 16th green, famous for its severity of back to front slope as well as its many tiers. I would liken that approach to trying to land a 150 yard shot on a particular step of a grand staircase with failure the likely outcome. Finally, the last shot of the day into the 18th is pure theatre. The majority of this Par 3 spans the width of a seemingly bottomless gorge and if the ball successfully makes the crossing, it is welcomed into an extraordinary amphitheatre of brightly coloured vegetation and bunkers befitting of a major championship winners presentation.
Some things come and go with the trends of the day but Pasatiempo will always be there. Always relevant, always iconic and hopefully always in the highest echelons of courses everybody can go and play. Even with the changing decades, country club culture is vibrant and many of the worlds best courses are closed to people not in the know. Dr Mackenzie I am sure would be happy that his course is able to be enjoyed by all and I hope this post inspires you to go and play one of the worlds best publicly accessible gems.
Date: February 16, 2021