For a man with such an impressive body of work, it is perhaps a little surprising to learn that having sketched the design of his venerable courses, Dr Alister MacKenzie often spent very little time on site during construction, leaving his associates to oversee the development. But at Pasatiempo, an hour north of his most famous creation, Cypress Point, MacKenzie put his heart and soul into the development of the course, even living in a house alongside the sixth hole. during the final years of his life. And unlike at, say, Royal Melbourne, where the severity of the contours were actually toned down in his absence, or Augusta National where he died before the course was completed, at Pasatiempo he did things exactly the way he wanted, carving out what he called his favourite course on the hillside above Santa Cruz.
One of a string of six MacKenzie courses within an hour of each other (the others being Valley Club, Cypress Point, Green Hills, Claremont and the Meadow Club), Pasatiempo opened to great fanfare in 1929 with a challenge match involving Bobby Jones, founder Marion Hollins and Amateur Champions Cyril Tolley and Glenna Collett. But the Great Depression and the Second World War ushered in an era of financial hardship that saw bunkers removed, greens shrunk and tees moved in order to reduce maintenance costs. The Pasatiempo that MacKenzie had bequeathed (he died in 1934) had seemingly been lost forever.
But one day in the early 1990s something remarkable happened: club historian Bob Beck unearthed a hoard of old photographs taken by Pebble Beach's legendary photographer Julian Graham around the time the club opened. The decaying slides showed the course in amazing detail, and suddenly there was talk of a restoration. Having read Tom Doak's book on MacKenzie, Beck had little hesitation in recommending he be given the commission, in spite of the fact that established architects such as Robert Trent Jones II and Ronald Fream has previously developed design plans. The board agreed and in 1997 – long before he came to prominence with such stellar designs as Barnbougle Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Cape Kidnappers – Doak was hired. Using the photographs as a guide, and greatly aided by an aerial photograph from 1931 that would prove to be a road map for a long and difficult journey, he created his master plan. So began a labour of love that would take almost ten years to complete.
"Our mission is simple," said Doak at the outset. "To preserve the MacKenzie legacy as well as possible, considering the modern realities of golf. Our guiding principles have been, first, to add nothing foreign to the original design, and, second, to enhance the 'pleasurable excitement' that that architect sought to provide." It's fair to say they've done it in spades, with the 'new' course being virtually unrecognisable from the one that had previously existed. Doak and his talented team have transformed a fading star of the Golden Age into a modern classic, and in doing so have further confirmed the timeless brilliance of MacKenzie's designs. It might not be long – just 6,500 yards from the tips – but with plenty of elevation changes and upslopes to land on, some fiendish bunkering and the most remarkable green complexes, the challenge is undoubtedly there. Almost every hole has been altered in some way, ranging from the movement of existing bunkers or the addition of long lost hazards to moving and rebuilding entire green complexes (they are all now in their original locations).
Working one hole at a time – with design associate Jim Urbina on site much of the time and Doak making regular appearances to attend to the green complexes – the men of Renaissance Golf slowly transformed the course, starting on the first and progressing steadily to minimise disruption for the membership.
And far from simply being a question of copying holes from the photographs, Doak by his own admission gained a huge amount of knowledge and a much greater understanding of MacKenzie's principles. It's no coincidence that during this period, the designer produced a couple of spectacular 'throwback' courses of his own, namely Barnbougle and Pacific Dunes. "I've written a book about MacKenzie and spent a little time at Pasatiempo before we started work, but we certainly discovered additional things about MacKenzie's style," says Doak. "The guys in my team really immersed themselves in it and really learned about how to craft bunkers and do different things. It's been great for us and we have all improved. But it wasn't easy, and even with old photos and multiple angles it is surprising how much you have to play around with things to make it work." The putting surfaces are a good case in point as the greens at Pasatiempo are perhaps the most severely contoured of any MacKenzie course; a combination of architectural freedom and extreme topography affording him the perfect opportunity to showcase his golfing ideals. "Pasatiempo is one of the hilliest sites he ever worked on and that naturally means more contours on the greens because you don't have any flat places to build them," says Doak. "So they are going to be exaggerated, partly because of the property, partly because that's what he was all about." Even before Pasatiempo's restoration was completed, the plaudits were being received (Golf 's Top 100 listing has the course at number 55 in 2007, having risen from 71 in 2005 and 83 in 2003).
The reaction from the club and its members, more importantly, has been unanimously positive despite some early reservations that widening fairways and removing trees might take with it the challenge of the course. That hasn't happened, and with such heavily contoured greens now being bolstered by menacing MacKenzie bunkers, the par of 70 has never been so well protected. Doak is rightly proud of his work and pays particular tribute to Bob Beck for coming up with more and more photographs, Jim Urbina for devoting so much time to the project and superintendent Dean Gump who smoothed the path to success. "MacKenzie would be proud of them all," he says of his crew. He's not wrong.
Richard Green is travel editor of Golf World in the UK.
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.