California has so many great golf destinations it’s easy to overlook one of the best courses in the state—if not the nation—simply because there’s no resort attached to it and the professional tours don’t stop there. I’m talking about Pasatiempo Golf Club, the classic Alister MacKenzie gem roughly midway between San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula, home to one of his other famous designs, Cypress Point (not to mention Pebble Beach, Spyglass, et al.). How good is Pasatiempo? When Bobby Jones played it on opening day in 1929, he immediately hired MacKenzie to design Augusta National.
Pasatiempo is only 6,521 yards from the tips, but it plays to a stalwart 72.4 rating/143 slope. Its dramatic elevation changes and seemingly endless natural hazards make for a rugged course whose difficulty is cranked up several notches by MacKenzie’s strongly contoured greens and sprawling, glorious bunkers. Every hole seems to offer a risk-and-reward tactical choice, and every green runs fast, true, and convoluted.
Each successive tee box presents you with a unique challenge. The opener is a 457-yard par 4 that requires a long, accurate approach as well as a powerful drive. The third hole, a magnificent 214-yard uphill par 3, is protected not just by its length but by four menacing greenside bunkers along with a mind-messing cross bunker. The first par 5 you play, the sixth hole, is 567 yards, but believe it or not, accuracy counts more than length on every shot due to the tight fairway, cross bunkers, and long, narrow green. Natural hazards abound on the back side. A bottomless ravine threatens both your drive and your approach on the 392-yard 11th hole, then comes back into play guarding the green on the 373-yard 12th.
The number-one handicap hole on Pasatiempo is the 387-yard 16th, a hole MacKenzie himself considered the best two-shot hole in the game. The drive is uphill, blind, and rewards a high draw if you can pull one off. The approach is what separates the men from the boys, however. It’s back over the ravine you’ve encountered on several holes and into a brutal three-tiered green that is a full 49 yards deep and has a frightening false front. Coming up short is not an option, nor is leaving your ball above the hole. In other words, par on this hole is almost always a function of a perfect second shot. It’s easy to see how Pasatiempo was built to enhance match play—the predominant form of competition in its day.
The club has hosted numerous USGA Championships and is the permanent home of the Western Intercollegiate Golf Tournament, where everyone from Ken Venturi and Gene Littler to Johnny Miller, Dave Stockton, and Tiger Woods competed during their college years. LPGA star Juli Inkster literally grew up on the course, and Alister MacKenzie chose to live there—his home is along the fairway on the sixth hole.
One of the best features of Pasatiempo is its status as a semiprivate club. Certain tee times are reserved for members, but you can book a time online as much as 365 days in advance. If you treasure the classical traditions of golf architecture or otherwise want a spectacular golf experience, book yours today!
Greens Fee: $250, pasatiempo.com
For a place to stay and play on your Northern California golf excursion, try the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. Just 30 minutes from San Francisco International Airport and an easy one-hour drive to Pasatiempo, the resort offers accommodations at a fabulous Ritz hotel, two very entertaining golf courses, and guest pampering that won’t stop.
Golf is the heart of the resort, and two excellent and completely different golf experiences are available to both resort guests and daily-fee players. The Old Course, a traditional parkland-style track that opened in 1973, was designed by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane. Its 18th hole along the ocean has been ranked among the 100 best in America. The Ocean Course was designed by Arthur Hills to pay homage to Scottish links-style courses. It debuted in 1997 and was remodeled in 2009 to make it play even more true to the style.
The Old Course stretches 7,003 yards from the tips. The generous fairways and gentle greens are perfect for the resort player who chooses the right tees (the whites are fine at 6,332 yards). The better player will be rewarded by well-placed tee shots and aggressive pin-seeking approaches, while the less-than-perfect golfer won’t be decimated by a miss or two. The Old Course ends with two thrilling holes on the Pacific: a 167-yard one-shotter that plays dead into the prevailing wind followed by a risk-and-reward 405-yard par 4 with the ocean on the right and a ravine crossing the fairway smack in the middle of the range of just about everybody’s tee shot. A driver should probably be your last choice off the tee on the final hole. The shot into the tiny 18th green is a simple short iron or wedge made a bit more demanding by the audience typically watching from the hotel patio and firepit adjacent to it.
The Pacific is in view from every hole on the Ocean Course, but is in play (kind of) only on the 184-yard par-3 17th hole, where an errant tee shot can easily find the beach at the bottom of the cliffs next to the green. The ocean breezes (or gales), though, shape every shot you make on the 6,854-yard track—especially on the back nine. The course plays much like pure links, with rolling, contoured fairways where odd bounces prevail and approach shots into generous greens demand careful consideration of the humps and bumps of the greenside terrain. Shot values matter more than sheer length and power. The fairways are generous, but the rough is mowed short around bunkers to bring the hazards into play on tee shots. Greenside surrounds are cut to “just above green” mowing height to foster ball movement on the ground, and native fescue between holes provides you with visual cues about how to direct your shots.
With a little planning, it’s easy to play both courses in a day. Just be sure to leave time for a generous lunch break at Mullins Bar & Grill in the clubhouse or at the Conservatory Lounge in the hotel. The braised short rib sliders, cooked for 48 sweet hours, deserve your full attention, so allow enough time between rounds to enjoy them.
Other dining options include the nautically inspired Navio, which serves fine coastal cuisine from a 1,000-square-foot display kitchen; and ENO, a wine bar that contains more than 5,000 bottles of international wines and includes sommelier-selected wine flights. Other resort amenities include a 16,000-square-foot spa and fitness center with a unique coed Roman mineral bath, an immense patio perched on the cliffs above the beach, and soul-searing views of the Pacific from nearly every room. There’s also a scenic trail that winds along the cliffs; nearby activities include horseback riding, deep-sea fishing, whale watching, sea kayaking, hiking, biking, and antiquing.
Golf Package: $755, includes unlimited golf for two. ritzcarlton.com