After I finished my first ever round at Pasatiempo Golf Club, I got to my car, sat down, took a deep breath, and said “man, that was exhausting.” Not physically, but mentally. I’ve never thought so hard about every shot I took during a round than I did that day.
I mean this all as a compliment to Pasatiempo, not a complaint. Every hole requires some thought to figure out how to play it properly. Long and straight isn’t always the answer. And the greens at Pasatiempo are out-of-this-world, both in their beauty and their difficulty. Any loss of focus will put you at a high risk of bogey or worse.
This can be credited to the great Alister MacKenzie, who designed Pasatiempo in the 1920s during the golden era of golf course design, when golf was meant to be a scenic game of chess, not an artificially difficult game of checkers. It’s a unique challenge that is hard to find anywhere else in the country, even in golf-saturated Northern California.
A little course knowledge will go a long way before you play Pasatiempo for the first time. Here’s what I took away from my experience.
Pasatiempo sits toward the base of the lovely Santa Cruz Mountains, just a few miles from the heart of the city of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz area is a little over an hour south of San Francisco, and just under an hour north of Monterey–basically in between the Boardwalk and Park Place of California golf. If you’re not a Pasatiempo member or a guest of a member, you’ll also play high-rent-district green fees–up to $260 for 18 holes, not including a cart. The course is a little hilly but it’s a great walk–the tees and greens are almost always right next to each other.
Pasatiempo is ranked by Golf Digest as the 21st best public course in the United States. After it originally opened in 1929, the course strayed from Dr. MacKenzie’s design. But in 2007, Tom Doak (who’s book The Anatomy of a Golf Course is a fantastic read) was brought in to restore the course. Pasatiempo’s website has a section that details the restoration and is worth your time to read.
Pasatiempo’s driving range is okay. It has mats, but is a decent size and gets the job done for warming you up before your round. Make sure to get there plenty early though; the range is a little ways from the first tee, and a van will have to take you down and pick you up before you start your round. You’ll also most definitely want to roll some putts before you tee off to get a feel for just how slick the greens are.
There is so much interesting information about Pasatiempo’s history, design etc… that a university class could probably be created just for the golf course. Much of this information is nicely chronicled on Pastatiempo’s website and elsewhere on the internet. So I’ll avoid repeating anything you can find there, and instead focus on a few things that really stood out to me about the course.
The first thing that stood out was how small the actual property is. I’ve gotten used to courses in California that wander through hundreds of acres of hills and valleys. But Pasatiempo occupies a very tight (albeit valuable) piece of real estate in Santa Cruz, and there is no wasted space. The best example is the par-3 15th, which is tucked into a nook in the middle of the back nine. At other courses, this space might be used for a snack stand or restroom. But at Pasatiempo, this space was used for what turned out to be my favorite par-3 (more on that later).
Second, the green complexes are absolutely amazing. The green and bunker designs are gorgeous. The greens themselves are also fast and severely contoured. Oftentimes–most of the time even–the best approach shot or chip to a green will be away from the pin, where the slope of the green will bring your ball toward the hole. The greens force you to take your strategy to a whole other level. If you have a putt or chip from above the hole, you’ll need the touch of Jordan Spieth to avoid a three-putt or get up and down. The only way you can score well on this course is by managing your short game.
The third thing that stood out is the different feel the two nines have. The front nine is more exposed to the coast and has some spectacular views to the south of Monterey Bay and Monterey itself. The air felt cooler and the terrain seemed a little gentler. The back nine (which I think is a little more interesting than the front) is on the other side of a road but feels a world apart. It lacks the coastal feel of the front nine and there are no ocean views, but there are some beautiful aged trees and barranca that the holes meander their way through. The beauty of this is setup is that you are getting two quintessential types of California golf (coastal and inland) in one round.
Enough with the chitchat. Here are some thoughts about several of the holes. All yardages are from the gold tees (the tips), which measure at 6,500 yards and 72.4/143.
First hole, 457 yards: Pasatiempo’s iconic first hole is also a brute. The hole is straight away and has a wonderful view of Monterey Bay and, on even a semi-clear day, the Monterey Peninsula itself. You’ll want to favor the left side of the fairway for a good angle into the green, which has a couple of bunkers on the right side. There is a bunker on the left side of the fairway about 50 yards from the green that looks like it is in no-man’s land but, due to the hole’s length, can come into play with a poorly hit second shot. A par on the first is an excellent start.
Second hole, 437 yards: Alright, you’ve taken in the view and dispensed with the first-hole jitters. Now it’s time to get serious. The second is another great par-4 that highlights the strategy demanded by Pasatiempo. The hole bends a little to the right and the ideal tee shot hugs the right side of the fairway, but you’ll be required to hit a gentle fade from the tee to pull that off. You can take a simpler approach off the tee and blast it out to the middle or left side of the fairway, which is pretty wide-open. But from there you’ll have a less-desireable approach to the green, which has a some deep bunkers protecting the front-left side. The safest approach is one that lands short and right of the green and uses the green’s contours to take your ball back toward the pin. Like the first hole, par is a great score at the second.
Third hole, 214 yards: Pasatiempo might have the best set of par-3s I have ever played. The third hole is the first of them, and also the most difficult. It’s long, uphill, and you absolutely don’t want to find yourself in one of the several bunkers surrounding the green. It looks like the safe play is short and left of the green, but if the course is playing firm and fast (as it was when I was there) anything short of the green will roll back down about 20 yards. Still, short and left is probably the best place to miss since you’ll have a pretty straightforward chip up to the green. Note that any shot (tee shot or chip up) hit to the back portion of the green is likely to trickle back down toward the center.
Fifth hole, 190 yards: How you play the par-3 fifth is dictated by the day’s pin placement. The green is boomerang-shaped, with a large bunker placed in the inner bend of the boomerang. Additional bunkers surround the other parts of the green. If the pin is to the right of that big front bunker, the safest tee shot is short of the green, where you can just chip it on up. If the pin is behind that bunker at the middle of the boomerang, you’ll want to do your best to just blast your tee shot over the bunker. You might have a slick downhill putt if you go past the hole, but it’s probably a better bet than having to hit out of the bunker (or over it!) with no green to work with.
Sixth hole, 567 yards: Dr. MacKenzie’s house can be seen off to the left of the par-5 sixth, about 100 yards from the green. That’d be a sweet place to live, although the view is of one of the lesser appealing holes on the course. The sixth is long, narrow, and relatively flat with out-of-bounds to the left and forest of cypress and pine trees to the right. Just keep it straight on this one, even if it means sacrificing distance. I didn’t keep it straight, and ended up with a triple bogey.
Seventh hole, 348 yards: The seventh is my least favorite hole at Pasatiempo. It’s a straight away par-4 lined with a chute of trees on both sides of the fairway. The trees give the hole an artificial feel that clashes with the rest of the course. A member told me the trees were added for safety reasons a long time ago after a stray shot from the adjacent sixth fairway struck a golfer and killed him. Fair enough. I’ll stop complaining now.
Ninth hole, 500 yards: The ninth is an uphill par-5 and, for me, was one of the most memorable holes at Pasatiempo. For one thing, you see the entire hole on your drive up to the course, and again as you play the first hole (which runs parallel to the ninth). This definitely added to the anticipation of playing this hole. The ninth is also a great golf hole. The tee shot favors a left-to-right ball flight to a fairly wide fairway, but the layup and approach favor a right-to-left shot. It’s possible to reach the green in two, but a layup toward the big flag pole right of the green is probably the best choice. The green is very elevated and protected by two deep bunkers (even by Pasatiempo standards) on the left side that you might not be able to see the pin from. The green is deeper than you might think from the fairway, so make sure to take an extra club to get over those bunkers.
10th hole, 440 yards: If you held a gun to my head and demanded I name my favorite hole at Pasatiempo, I’d probably say the 10th. The hole bends from right to left and the tee shot requires a minimal carry over some barranca. It’s a blind tee shot too, which sometimes bothers me, but not on this hole. There’s a little more room out in the fairway than what you might think from the tee. The green is open on the right side, but protected on the left by what I can only describe as a canal of bunkers that starts about 60 yards or so in front of the green. From the fairway, the only bunkers you can see are on the far bank of the canal. But on the near bank is a similar set of bunkers. I’ve never seen a set of bunkers like these ones, and they are beautiful. And you definitely don’t want to have a first-hand look at them. One of my regrets is not taking a good picture of these bunkers, but you can click here to see some pictures on Pasatiempo’s website.
11th hole, 392 yards: You just finished Pasatiempo’s best hole, and your reward is playing one of its hardest. The 11th is uphill the whole way and bisected by some barranca about 150 yards from the green. There is a lot more room to the right side of the fairway, but you’ll want to be on the left side for a good angle into the green. The green is narrow and guarded by some barranca and deep bunkers in front, and more bunkers in the back. You’ll be in a world of pain if you are anywhere but on this green or just short of it.
13th hole, 531 yards: The 13th through 16th holes is an incredible stretch of golf holes. Some of the prettiest bunkers at Pasatiempo are the ones surrounding the green on the par-5 13th. These pretty bunkers are also a great example of MacKenzie’s skill of deceiving golfers. From a distance, it looks like any layup or approach shot in front of the green is safe from the bunkers. But as your approach the green, you’ll come over a hill and realize that one of the bunkers on the right bleeds into the middle of the fairway about 50 yards from the pin. The best plan for this hole–even for long hitters–is to layup about 100 yards from the pin and attack the hole from there.
14th hole, 429 yards: Fourteen is an interesting hole. It has this gully that runs the entire width of the fairway, getting deeper the farther left you are. Your drive will probably end up in the gully, which is fine because it is still part of the fairway. But you are likely to have an awkward stance on your approach shot to the green, which otherwise would be one of the more straightforward greens on the course.
15th hole, 141 yards: The 15th was my favorite par-3 at Pasatiempo. But a member I played with was not so fond of it. The only safe shot on this hole is a high one that lands soft on the green. From the tee, it looks like you have room to poke it on the front-left portion of the green, but any shot in that direction with just a little too much juice will roll off into a bunker behind the green that’s much larger than it looks from the tee. If you’re short and right, you’ll be in a deep bunker. And if you are long, you’ll have an impossibly fast downhill chip. If you’re not putting on this hole, you’re in trouble.
16th hole, 387 yards: A member told me that the par-4 16th was MacKenzie’s favorite two-shot hole anywhere. And I’m sure it is one of his most photographed holes, as well. But because of the green, it has to be one of the hardest MacKenzie holes out there. The green has three levels and probably eight feet of elevation change from the bottom to top. It also has the prettiest (and I think the largest) greenside bunker on the course. It’s nuts. When I played, I thought I hit an awesome approach shot through some trees and over the pretty bunker, smack into the middle of the green. I was pumped. I walked back toward the fairway expecting some praise from the members I was playing with. They said nothing. So I looked back at the green, and my ball had just finished rolling off the green in the front…about 60 feet from where it landed. I was faced with a 100 foot putt/chip from off the green up to the back pin. I putted, but didn’t quite make it up the final tier…and the ball proceeded to roll all the way back down (80 feet or so) from next to where I just played. I tried again, and this time got it about pin high, then sank my bogey putt.
18th hole, 169 yards: The 18th at Pasatiempo is one of the few par-3 finishing holes out there. It’s probably the prettiest of the par-3s at Pasatiempo (which is a very high honor). But, like the other par-3s, there is hardly any margin for error. The tee shot requires a carry over the same barranca that you have to drive over on the 10th hole. The green slopes hard from back to front. If the pin is on the right side, any tee shot that doesn’t land close to pin-high will roll off of a false front into a collection area about 5 feet lower than the pin. And any putt from above the hole that’s hit just a little too firm risks rolling off that same false front. That’s exactly what happened to me. I hit a great tee shot that stayed on the green, 15 feet or so from the hole (there’s video proof below). I hit an aggressive birdie putt that on most courses would have rolled about five feet by, but on this hole rolled off the front of the green into the collection area. I chipped back up the slope from there and two putted…a double bogey after being 15 feet for birdie (no video of that, thank goodness).
If you’re still reading this…congratulations. All I will add is that Santa Cruz is a lovely city to visit for non-golf reasons. It has some nice beaches, and there’s a boardwalk with games, rides and such that is particularly fun if your traveling with your kids. Just a few miles down the coast is the town of Capitola, which also has a great beach, decent restaurants, and a charming feel. And wine, don’t forget about that! There are some great wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, although the best one–Heart O’ the Mountain–doesn’t take visitors. But if you can find a bottle of their Pinot, buy it.
Pasatiempo is a must-play golf course if you’re in Northern California. Don’t let it became an afterthought.
Design: A. Just amazing. Would be an A+ but for the 6th and 7th holes.
Condition: A. Fairways/greens were true. Hope that’s the case through the summer.
Enjoyability: A. Such a pleasant place to golf, despite some three-putts.
Value: B+. A round at Pasatiempo is worth $260, but that’s still a lot of money.
Overall grade: A.