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Ageless Wonder

The 16th at Pasatiempo Golf Club. Par 4 - 387, 365, 353
Pasatiempo, Image by Mike Gibbons

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Alister MacKenzie’s design brilliance, Juli Inkster’s childhood resourcefulness, Tiger Woods showing his mortality: That’s some powerful golf history seeping out of one modest par-4 hole. But then Pasatiempo Golf Club and its 16th hole have never been ordinary. MacKenzie’s genius resonates nearly 100 years after his legendary work as a golf course architect, and for good reason. His most acclaimed designs include Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne, but he also carved an absolute gem into the rolling foothills of Santa Cruz, California.

Pasatiempo Golf Club 387, 365, 353. Illustration: Luke  Davis/Lie + Loft
Pasatiempo Golf Club 387, 365, 353. Illustration: Luke Davis/Lie + Loft

Genius in its genes

Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

Marion Hollins, a women’s sports pioneer and the 1921 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, brought Alister MacKenzie to Cypress Point when she worked at the Pebble Beach Company. Soon thereafter, she invited him to design Pasatiempo. Good call. 

The course officially opened in September 1929, with Hollins and Bobby Jones among those in the first group to play. The gallery included MacKenzie and famed sportswriter Grantland Rice.

They strolled a course that remains relevant and widely respected nearly 100 years later. And no single hole personifies Pasatiempo’s distinctive character—its natural flow, artistic bunkers and challenging greens—better than No. 16.

As MacKenzie once said, immodestly, “I think the 16th is the best two-shot hole I know.”

He finds no argument here, or from any number of accomplished players familiar with Pasatiempo. Consider Arron Oberholser, who grew up in nearby San Mateo, starred in college at San Jose State and later won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Oberholser, now a Golf Channel analyst, suggests Pasatiempo should serve as inspiration for 21st-century architects. There’s much to admire in a layout stretching only 6,500 yards but still flowing with strategic contemplation.

The eclectic mix of long holes and short holes especially leaves a lasting impression. “The design was way ahead of its time,” Oberholser says. “It’s absolute genius.”

No. 16 offers a tidy snapshot of Pasatiempo’s enduring charm, from a partially blind tee shot and daunting approach to a four-tiered green guarded on the right by a sprawling, steep, gorgeous, ball-swallowing bunker. MacKenzie crammed all of this into a hole measuring 387 yards from the championship tees, a priceless relic in this era of super-sized courses. 

“That’s the beauty of No. 16; the fact that it’s under 400 yards speaks volumes,” Oberholser says. 

Juli Inkster, a World Golf Hall of Famer and one of the best women’s players ever, grew up in a house alongside the 14th fairway at Pasatiempo. Even as a child she showed the shrewdness that would help so often in her career, frequently wandering over to the “canyon” right of No. 16, where many errant shots vanished. Inkster would scoop up armfuls of golf balls, return to her backyard and sell them.

That’s just one cool slice of lore involving the 16th hole. And then there’s the day it tormented Eldrick T. Woods.

Even if you avoid the black-diamond slopes of the right-side bunker, MacKenzie designed the green on No. 16 as a series of elevated shelves that have ruined plenty of good rounds over the years. Just ask Tiger Woods and Arron Oberholser.  Photo by Mike Gibbons
Even if you avoid the black-diamond slopes of the right-side bunker, MacKenzie designed the green on No. 16 as a series of elevated shelves that have ruined plenty of good rounds over the years. Just ask Tiger Woods and Arron Oberholser.

Tiger’s travails

Woods, for all his wondrous feats as a pro, was just as unstoppable as an amateur. He won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles, after all, and he dominated the college game in his two years at Stanford.

But in the spring of 1996, shortly before he played in the Masters as an amateur and barely more than a year before his historic 12-shot victory at Augusta National, he grappled with the 16th hole at Pasatiempo—and lost. 

Oberholser and Stanford’s Joel Kribel were in the final group in the final round of the ’96 Western Intercollegiate, with Woods up ahead. Oberholser nursed a slim lead, and Woods was among those giving chase.

His second shot at No. 16 landed on the green—the hole was cut on what Oberholser calls a “coffee-table shelf” on the left side of the middle tier—but spun all the way down to the bottom. That left Woods with an extraordinarily difficult chip shot, which slipped off the shelf and trickled back down to his feet. 

He chipped again and two-putted for a costly double bogey.

Oberholser reached No. 16 in two shots, only to three-putt for a bogey (the wicked green strikes again). But he held on to win the tournament, ahead of Kribel and Woods.

The Spanish pasatiempo is translated as “hobby” or “pastime” or “a relaxed passage of time,” and this is illustrated by the club’s logo, but No. 16 is not a relaxing part of this passage. It’s a true test of nerve and skill from tee to green. Images by Mike Gibbons
The Spanish pasatiempo is translated as “hobby” or “pastime” or “a relaxed passage of time,” and this is illustrated by the club’s logo, but No. 16 is not a relaxing part of this passage. It’s a true test of nerve and skill from tee to green.

A relentless challenge

So how to play No. 16 at Pasatiempo? We turn to another Woods: Ken Woods, the club’s head pro since 2004. 

Even at its modest length, the 16th was Pasatiempo’s 1-handicap hole for many years. Four or five years ago, by Woods’ account, club officials realized No. 11 actually was harder; No. 16 now counts as the 3 handicap. 

That’s still quite a distinction for a hole on which few players use driver (a hybrid or long iron makes more sense). MacKenzie messes with their mind on the tee shot, forcing players to pick a spot in the background for their line and then, ideally, hit a draw (for a right-hander) covering 230 to 240 yards.

“You can see up the left side, and peek at the green, but you can’t really see the landing area,” Woods says. 

Too far left: barranca. Too far right: out of bounds. 

A good drive leaves an approach shot of about 150 yards. That sounds simple, but you’re hitting off a downhill lie to a complicated green. Enjoy. 

“A lot of club championships changed dramatically on that hole,” Woods says. “You can make a disaster.”

The base of the Santa Cruz Mountains provided Alister MacKenzie with an incredible canvas, and he produced a masterpiece that feels innovative nearly 100 years after it was built. With its diabolical bunker on the right of the green, the par-4 16th remains an all-time MacKenzie classic. Image by Mike Gibbons
The base of the Santa Cruz Mountains provided Alister MacKenzie with an incredible canvas, and he produced a masterpiece that feels innovative nearly 100 years after it was built. With its diabolical bunker on the right of the green, the par-4 16th remains an all-time MacKenzie classic.

Treacherous restoration

The green should have its own ZIP code. It’s massive and menacing, a rolling patch of earth determined to bewilder golfers of all skill levels. 

The bunker on the right side is an elongated, memorable piece of art, but another bunker on the left also can cause problems. The green sits at a slightly awkward angle, adding to the challenge. 

“It’s a monster,” Inkster says. “It’s so hard to get the ball on the correct tier. If you don’t, then you’re left with a tough two-putt. I love the tee shot and approach. You better be on your game for that hole.”

Oberholser views the green as having four tiers, counting that coffee-table shelf. That’s a popular hole location, as he and Tiger Woods learned back in their college days.

Tom Doak’s restoration of No. 16, about 10 years ago, gave both bunkers their old rugged look, restored the false front and added a section of green in the back right—all of which makes it even more difficult to judge the speed and line of putts. 

“It’s a brutal two-putt from any tier to any other tier,” Oberholser says. 

Or, as Ken Woods puts it, “The challenge of putting from one tier to another sometimes gets comical, but it’s so MacKenzie.”

Don’t be discouraged

Ken Woods once played Pasatiempo with Tom Corker, assistant pro at Kingston Heath in Melbourne, Australia. As they stepped to the 16th tee, Woods told Corker, “No pressure, but you need to make birdie here so you can tell everyone back home you made birdie on No. 16 at Pasatiempo.”

Corker complied, rolling home a 40-foot putt from the middle tier to the upper tier. The next day, he played the course again—and made another birdie on No. 16.

So, yes, it’s possible. Not common, but possible.