50 Words or Less
Pasatiempo Golf Club is a beautiful, testing Alister MacKenzie design in Santa Cruz, California. Tremendous variety and visual interest. Demands a lot of your iron play.
There are few golf course architects who have put their fingerprint on the game so firmly as Dr. Alister MacKenzie. Every golfer knows his most famous design – Augusta National – but he was only offered the opportunity to build Bobby Jones’s course because of what Jones saw at Pasatiempo. Today, Pasatiempo remains true to the original design and is a reminder that even immense technological change cannot make a brilliant course obsolete.
Despite being nearly 100 years old, Pasatiempo has very nice practice facilities. The putting green is next to the first tee and can comfortably hold six golfers. Next to that, a step down the hill, is a short game area. The green and bunkers mirror the tricky conditions you’ll find on the course. Finally, there’s a small driving range at the bottom of the hill, adjacent to the first fairway. It’s not a massive, modern range, but the range balls are logoed. Do with that information what you will.
Customer Service & Amenities
One of the things that stands out most from my afternoon at Pasatiempo was the quality and character of the service. Every time I had a question (or just a questioning look on my face), there was someone available to point me in the right direction. While this isn’t unique – most great courses have excellent service – there’s a feel to Pasatiempo that’s different. It’s more relaxed, natural, at ease. This genuine friendliness also extends to the members (Pasatiempo is semi-private), who could not have been nicer about helping a tourist get around their course.
When it comes to amenities, Pasatiempo has everything you would expect. The pro shop is fully stocked with items bearing one of the best logos in golf. Also in the clubhouse you’ll find the MacKenzie Bar & Grill.
Beauty & Scenery
When you’re playing Pasatiempo, you feel like you’re in California. This course has a wonderful sense of place that comes from a variety of elements. One surprising contributor to that is the housing. Typically golfers curse houses, but the homes at Pasatiempo have a classic California vibe (no mega mansions to be seen). They fit perfectly on this old school layout.
Another standout characteristic is the diversity of trees. I can’t remember playing a course with such an interesting combination of species, from majestic, towering evergreens to palm trees.
The elevation changes are the defining visual trait of Pasatiempo. When you get to the higher spots on the course, you get gorgeous views that extend to the ocean. At lower elevations, your focus returns to the trees, bunkers, and wildlife. As much as I love an oceanside course, seeing the water only in spots made those views that much sweeter.
The final thing that must be noted is the way that the course both sits naturally on the land and enhances it. It would be easy for a course with this much up and down to feel gimmicky or manufactured. However, Pasatiempo looks like it came this way from nature, just add bunkers. And those bunkers, as well as the smaller, added land movements, add so much visual interest that Pasatiempo is a course I could happily walk without my clubs.
It would be easy to look at Pasatiempo’s Championship tees at 6,495 yards and assume it’s a short course. To think this would ignore two important factors: a par of 70 and the substantial elevation changes. While this isn’t a particularly long course, it can hold its own. It’s also worth noting that Pasatiempo offers a wide range of playing distances with four sets of tees and three combo sets going all the way down to 4,438 yards.
What Pasatiempo lacks in raw distance it makes up for with visual challenge and variety off the tee. The nervy first tee shot plays to a narrow fairway bordered by the driving range and ninth hole. From the second tee, you’ll see more width, but the fairway narrows the farther you hit it. Other standouts are the semi-blind tee shot on #16 and the disorienting, frankly mean, fairway on #14. This course won’t take driver out of your hands, but you’ll need to think on every tee box.
Though there’s no “average” hole at Pasatiempo, on balance the fairways are reasonable in terms of width. If you stray, there’s a first cut of rough followed by thicker native grass. The latter section can be patchy, too, so you’re rolling the dice if you drive it there. Additionally, there are plenty of hazards. This is a very compact course, so playing from an adjacent hole is often a possibility. Similarly, there are roads and houses lining many holes.
The approach shots are the heart of Pasatiempo’s challenge. That starts with very testing lies, even in the fairway. Almost every hole has significant overall movement – most play substantially up or downhill. Then add in the inconsistent humps and swells. In the space of just a few feet you can see one perfectly flat lie and another that demands a baseball swing.
Another layer of difficulty is the elevation change. There are precious few flat shots at Pasatiempo – most require you to modify your yardage for the slope.
Pasatiempo’s special sauce is the shape of the greens. You’re not going to find many welcoming circle or oval greens here. Dr. MacKenzie favored amoeba-like shapes that swell and narrow or sit at awkward angles. There are several of what I call “fidget spinner” greens – three-pronged, triangular putting surfaces. These unusual targets can cause more indecision while simultaneously leaving less room for error.
Every green at Pasatiempo is heavily defended by bunkers. There’s rarely a “safe side.” If you are able to avoid the sand, you’re probably opening the door to a pitch from well below the green. The best strategy is to ignore the flag and aim for the fattest part of the green. Hitting greens in regulation is the surest way to avoid big numbers.
Greens & Surrounds
If you miss a green at Pasatiempo, there’s the potential for scorecard carnage. That starts with the sand traps. Just like the greens, most of the bunkers have unusual shapes. This can lead to unusual stances and compromised swings in a situation where most golfers are already stressed.
Being in the rough may not be any better as those unusual bunker shapes can create weird stances there, too. The rough tends to be fairly thick, requiring confident, aggressive swings. If you find yourself short sided, take your medicine and get on the green. This is not the course to get cute with.
Finally, there is fairly severe mounding and elevation change around many of the greens. You can easily find yourself well below the putting surface or needing to pitch over a hump. The mounds can also create challenging stances that most golfers rarely face in the short game.
Once you’re safely on the putting surface, Pasatiempo allows you to relax. The greens are in great shape – smooth and true. Their speed allows you to putt aggressively and take some of the break out of shorter putts, but if you’re careless, you can pile up three putts. Dr. MacKenzie gave these greens a ton of character, but there are still many realistic opportunities to make birdies and save pars.
Walking off the 18th green at Pasatiempo, I felt overwhelmed recalling the round. I haven’t played many courses that are as consistently compelling from the first hole to the last. It’s the golf equivalent of a “no skips” album.
And just like a “no skips” album, the replay potential at Pasatiempo is enormous. If it hadn’t been dark when I walked off the 18th, I would have headed straight back to the 1st tee. The balance of challenge and opportunity, fairness and chance makes for a riveting experience that I can’t wait to have again.
#11 – Par 4 – 390 Yards
The #1 handicap hole gauges your confidence on the tee shot. If you trust your driver, you can take a full swing and get pretty close to the green. The risk is hooking your ball into the ravine. Laying up feels safer, but then the challenging, uphill approach across the ravine becomes very long. The green is sandwiched between two rows of deep bunkers.
#5 – Par 3 – 190 Yards
This is a great example of the creative (vicious?) bunkering and green shapes. Short of the green, there’s a gaping sand trap that will scare many into bailing out right or left. What’s not evident from the tee is that the green actually stretches around the trap, allowing accurate iron players to run the ball up on the right.
Pasatiempo Golf Club was a last minute addition to my recent trip to Pebble Beach [review HERE] that turned out to be a highlight. While there are many things I took away from my round at Pasatiempo, the biggest is that great design is timeless. If you find yourself near Santa Cruz, make time for a round here.