Peeling Back 18 Pieces of Pasatiempo’s History
A bold restoration of Alister MacKenzie’s spectacular greens puts the spotlight on golf’s most underrated course
By Matt Ginella
Growing up in Northern California, I was always aware of Pasatiempo’s mystique. I heard rumblings of its greatness from people whose opinions I respected—most notably my Uncle Tony, my golf mentor. Fifteen years ago, I finally got to play Pasatiempo on assignment for Golf Digest, and I was gobsmacked.
Stacked and tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains, winding around and across canyons and creeks, Pasa is a revelation. Hole by hole, shot by shot, bunker by bunker, green by green, few courses in this country can match its architecture, artistry and adventure. Yet Pasatiempo, which opened in 1929, remains criminally underrated, barely cracking Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest. It sits at No. 96.
Perhaps Pasatiempo’s standing is still affected by a sustainability crisis when the course was running out of water. I featured Pasatiempo’s fight for reclaimed and well water during Golf Channel’s Morning Drive “Water Week” in the winter of 2015.
At the time of the water crisis, Pasatiempo had recently completed a 23-year restoration of the course, but Tom Doak and Jim Urbina didn’t touch the greens; they were deemed sacred ground, and rightfully so. If there was a Louvre of greens, Pasatiempo would have its own wing in the museum, and the multi-tiered 16th would attract the largest crowd. But the looming reality, almost 100 years later, is that those artifacts needed more pinnable hole locations, better drainage, an upgrade in turf and they needed to go back to get to their future.
In 2016, shortly after Pasatiempo secured the rights to reclaimed water from Scotts Valley, a neighboring city, the internal whispers grew louder: When do we address the greens? How? And with whom would we entrust this undertaking?
Pasatiempo is semi-private in the vein of the great clubs of the U.K. and Ireland, with hours of tee times set aside every day for public play. The leadership and membership of Pasatiempo took their time researching the greens project, and after much thoughtful conversation and debate, a vote passed in April 2022 to proceed.
A year later, 300 members and their families gathered on a gorgeous Sunday spring evening, and amid a wispy cloud of barbeque smoke, six Pasatiempo leaders said a few words and then simultaneously drove golden shovels into the 9th green. And at that moment, I couldn’t help but think arm-chair architects like Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg clutched his back and fell to the ground as though his voodoo doll had been pricked with pins. (Johnson also loves Pasatiempo but has been openly opposed to the greens project.)
But those first six cuts with shovels were just the start of the ceremony: The assembled crowd swarmed the green for what became a harvest festival of agronomy. Generations of Pasa people rolled up small sections of the putting surface to take home and plant in their yards. Some considered preserving the sacred turf in glass cases and frames. I stuffed a chunk the size of a big divot into my backpack. Anything that didn’t get claimed that evening was sliced up and shipped to Edgewood in Tahoe, which had a rough spring season and bought up the salvageable sod.
The Monday morning after the barbeque, the golden shovels gave way to excavators. It looked like a scene out of my son’s picture book, “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site.”
Urbina was hired as the architect overseeing the project, which is a perfect match. Like Pasatiempo, Urbina is underrated. He knows the course and the membership. He can’t help but take a soulful approach to his craft, studying the past as much as anyone I’ve met. He constantly recites quotes from the greats of the Golden Age of architecture and beyond. MacKenzie is one of his heroes. (The others are Perry Maxwell and Charles Blair Macdonald.)
One of Urbina’s favorite MacKenzie quotes? He read me this one over the phone:
“It is of vital importance to avoid anything that tends to make the game simple and stereotyped. On the contrary, every endeavor should be made to increase strategy, variety, mystery, charm and elusiveness so that we shall never get bored with it, but continue to pursue it with increasing zest, as many of the old stalwarts of St. Andrews do, for the remainder of our lives.”
Worth mentioning: MacKenzie, who died in 1934, lived out his life in a house off Pasatiempo’s 6th fairway.
“I wasn’t looking for work,” says Urbina, “but when they said they had to do something, I was honored to be asked to assist. Anyone who says the greens haven’t changed, they’re wrong. In the last 25 years, I’ve seen them change dramatically, right before my eyes. That’s what all courses do. You can either stop playing it and just look at it as artwork, or you get in and peel it back, to the best of your ability, to what was once there.” Still, Urbina is well aware of the emotion and pressure surrounding this project, saying with a laugh, “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”
That’s because Pasatiempo is one of the few MacKenzie originals that is open to the public. And because Urbina is fascinated by the history of the club, most notably the role of Marion Hollins, who developed the land and persuaded MacKenzie to build the course. Hollins sweet-talked Bobby Jones into playing it on opening day. As many know, Jones was so impressed by Pasatiempo and Cypress Point that he partnered with MacKenzie and Hollins for the design and build of Augusta National. So, yeah, Pasatiempo is a big deal in the history of golf architecture in America.
It’s also where Juli Inskter, an LPGA legend, grew up. Ken Venturi, a Northern California icon, called Pasatiempo one of his favorites in the world. And it’s now the host venue of the Western Intercollegiate, one of the college game’s top tournaments.
But back to the greens. They’re being done in chunks of three, based on proximity on the property. Holes 1, 2 and 9 went first. Then 6, 7 and 8. And 3, 4 and 5 are now deep in the process. Urbina is peeling back almost a century of natural runoff, sand-splash, top-dressing and mowing patterns. The greenside bunkers are being lowered and restored to their original shapes and intentions. Meanwhile, the back nine remains untouched and open for play.
Urbina is working closely with Justin Mandon, the course superintendent, another perfect fit for the project. Mandon, in his tenth year at Pasatiempo, is talked about as an agronomic prodigy who got the top job when he was 35. Mandon’s parents live off the 2nd green, and he’s the club’s adopted son, widely respected for his passion, knowledge and vision for what needs to be done. Along with Ken Woods, the head professional, and Scott Hoyt, the former general manager, Mandon spearheaded the effort to diversify Pasatiempo’s water supply, which essentially saved the club. Hoyt stayed on long enough to get the green restoration from concept to reality before retiring in 2022. His successor as GM, Steve Argo, has brought a fresh perspective and new energy to the project and the club.
We at the Fire Pit Collective are partnering with Pasatiempo to document the epic restoration from start to finish. We’re following along as Urbina, Mandon and a crew of 30 go from one green to the next. It’s a painstaking process, including nonstop consultations with several club historians, to say nothing of poring over original MacKenzie sketches and a trove of well-preserved old photos. Along the way they’ve unearthed rotted irrigation pipes and thatched, tired sod, all of which is being replaced with the latest in irrigation technology and the newest cultivars of bent grass. The greens are being built to USGA specs. Urbina is overseeing the deft blending of art, original intent, history and science.
The front nine is scheduled to reopen in December, allowing all 18 holes to be played with new front-nine greens and old back-nine greens until the completion of the Western Intercollegiate in April 2024. And then the back nine will be shut down and go through the same six-month cycle. A grand reopening of all 18 greens is scheduled for winter 2024.
Our plan at the Fire Pit Collective is to trickle out the occasional social post, podcast and photo essay while continuing to put together an immersive docuseries on what promises to be one helluva story that sets up Pasatiempo for the next 96 years.
I can’t say the same about the divot I took from the 9th green—it didn’t survive the trip from San Francisco back to San Diego.
For more on Pasatiempo and other Fire Pit projects, go to minute 49 of the latest Fire Drill Podcast: