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Women of a Certain Era

The best way to get closer to the 
legend behind Pasatiempo, Cypress and Pebble is to play from her tees

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“Honey, can you name a famous female golfer from the 1920s?”

“Amelia Earhart?”

I’m not amused. “Have you ever heard of Glenna Collett?”

“No,” my husband responds. He’s barely listening to me, so deep is his immersion in what’s happening on TV: the Masters, and Dustin Johnson is leading by an insane number. 

I persist. “Guess how far she could drive.”

“Two miles to Whole Foods?” Irritation is creeping into his voice.

“Three hundred and seven yards.”

He looks at me briefly, then turns back to the TV. “Maybe downhill and downwind,” he says. “And if there’s an earthquake.”

It might go without saying that my husband isn’t big on women’s golf. He finds it dull and “predictable.” I, on the other hand, have grown fascinated not just by female golfers, but specifically by those of a certain era: the early 20th century. 

The history of women in golf, much like that of men, is the story of the leisure class. Women who played golf 100 years ago were, by and large, unburdened by the relentless drudgery of housework. Many were all-around athletes, proficient at many different sports of the day. Many were big hitters, often outdriving the men. 

Collett was considered the greatest female golfer of the pre–World War II era. After conquering a variety of sports, she finally settled on golf. In 1921, despite a swing restricted by a long skirt and starched collar, 18-year-old Collett launched a gutta-percha ball with her hickory-shafted club 307 yards, a world record for a woman at the time. 

Another of the era’s big hitters was Collett’s friend Marion Hollins, a champion golfer, master horsewoman (she could steer a sharp turn in a coach-and-four like nobody’s business) and wealthy bon vivant who in 1922 abandoned the East Coast for the West. Hollins captured my imagination when I heard the story of her role in the creation of one of the most famous holes in golf: the par-3 16th at Cypress Point, on which the tee shot has to clear an ocean inlet spanning more than 200 yards. After he finished building Pebble Beach, Samuel F.B. Morse and his pal Hollins (they first met in 1922) developed Cypress Point. It was Hollins who brought Alister MacKenzie—still relatively unknown in the United States—from his native England to the Monterey Peninsula to finish designing Cypress after the first architect, Seth Raynor, died. While MacKenzie is properly credited as the architect, Hollins was never more than a few feet away.

In his posthumously published memoir, MacKenzie recounted when Cypress was first being laid out, in 1926, and Raynor and Hollins stood one day surveying the prospective course. Raynor remarked to Hollins that it was a pity the carry over the ocean was too long for a hole. Hollins disagreed. She was sure the shot was doable, and to prove it, she took a club—I like to think it was her brassie—and sailed the ball from the top of one cliff to the other.

But my fixation on Hollins went beyond that enduring image, to the place into which she poured her heart, soul and every last dollar: Pasatiempo Golf Club, a jewel of a public course in Santa Cruz, California, roughly halfway between world-famous Cypress and Pebble Beach to the south and the magnificent golf courses (Olympic, San Francisco GC, the list goes on) in San Francisco to the north. As it happens, Pasatiempo is an hour and 10 minutes south of my house. Who could resist? So I book a tee time and invite my friend Carolyn to meet me there. Like me, Carolyn discovered golf later in life. Unlike me, she’s a good player who can hold her own with just about any golfer.

Although I began to play golf a few years ago precisely because I wanted to spend more time with my husband, actually playing with him isn’t what I would characterize as enjoyable. He’s a great golfer who, paradoxically, seems only to get better with age. Like MacKenzie, who was in his 60s when he finally lowered his handicap to single digits (thanks to the tutelage of Ernest Jones, another Hollins import from the U.K.), my husband has dropped his to 3.6 since turning 60. Off the course, he is a relaxed and very funny man. But when he plays golf, he’s all business, and something of a tyrant. When I first took up the game, I made the usual beginner’s blunders, such as walking across his line on the green and parking my pushcart in the wrong spot. But I was also slow, doing pretty much everything at a snail’s pace. Over the years, he’s conditioned me so effectively that I now play trauma-informed golf, hurrying up even when I don’t need to.

When he hears about my Pasatiempo excursion, the benign indifference with which he usually regards my golfing adventures turns to vicarious delight. “That’s one of my favorite courses!” he says. “Have fun.” A day of golf without my husband feels deliciously liberating.

 It isn’t until I’m in the parking lot, unfolding my pushcart, that I begin to appreciate what I’m about to experience. Pasatiempo is only 400 feet above sea level, but feels like a summit to rival Mount Whitney. In the winter months, I’ve heard, the fog often settles in for days at a time. On this December morning, however, the sky is a spangled azure, the entire course Technicolor sharp. 

I’m the first to arrive for our late-morning tee time, and I take in the spectacular vista that runs down to the Pacific Ocean and across to the cliffs of Cypress Point. I’m greeted by the starter, a friendly young man named Neil. I deliver my usual prerecorded speech: I’m still working my way toward advanced-beginner status; I hit the ball straight, but not far; the marshal(s) needn’t worry about my pace of play, because I know when to pick up my ball. Et cetera. 

Neil is nodding, perhaps amused behind his proper COVID-19 mask. “You might want to play the Hollins Tees,” he says. His tone is conspiratorial, as if he’s letting me in on a secret. He’s pointing down the hill toward the fairway. I shade my eyes in search of a distant tee box. Sure enough, just before the start of the fairway, I see a rectangular patch of green. Placed some 50 to 100 yards closer to the green than even the forward tees, the Hollins Tees, it turns out, are ideal for short hitters like me.

Neil hands me a special Hollins Tee scorecard, which feels a little like getting the kids’ menu at Olive Garden. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a crayon came with it, but Neil supplies me with a real Pasatiempo pencil. I couldn’t be happier.

At Pasatiempo, the spirits of Hollins and MacKenzie are everywhere. They both loved it there so much that they had houses built next to the course. MacKenzie’s is halfway up the sixth fairway; Hollins’ is behind the fifth. In a glass case inside the clubhouse are MacKenzie’s early drawings of the course, along with photographs that show a beaming Hollins. 

Hollins’ life was at once charmed and tragic. During the charmed phase, she made a bundle of money with an oil investment and promptly sank the profits into Pasatiempo. 

Hollins discovered the 600-acre property while horseback riding in the hills above Santa Cruz. What she was traversing were the two ragged scars left by the San Andreas and Zayante faults, palimpsests of Northern California’s geological upheavals through the millennia, tectonic uplift that created the Santa Cruz Mountains as the San Andreas fault swerved to the left. She bought the land and hired MacKenzie to design her dream golf course.

Their philosophy of golf course design was in perfect sync: Every hole should offer alternate routes to the green, including one that allowed what Hollins called “the shorter or cannier player to attempt a safer line of direction.”

Pasatiempo became far more than a golf course. The development also included tennis courts, a swimming pool, bridle paths, a steeplechase course and dozens of home sites. (The steeplechase course has long since disappeared, but the tennis court and pool are still there, as well as more than 300 houses around the golf course.)

All the work, of course, was done back when they were constructed with horse and plow, without the benefit of bulldozers and backhoes. Golf course architects of the time surely rejoiced when they chanced upon an untrammeled palette of rolling terrain like the one MacKenzie found at Pasatiempo.

When he arrived in early 1928, he immediately pronounced the site splendid. The all-star team was rounded out by William Wurster, one of the most prominent building architects of the day, and the Olmsted brothers, of Central Park fame, who designed the landscaping.

Opening day was Sept. 8, 1929. Newspaper reporters showed up to chronicle the opening exhibition match, with a gallery of some 2,000 following the foursome from hole to hole. Collett shot an 83, beating the reigning British Amateur champion, Cyril Tolley. Placing last in the foursome was Hollins, with a 94. My guess is that she’d have done better if she hadn’t been hosting the shindig. With a 75, Bobby Jones shot the lowest score.

Between the wars, golf was a preferred pastime of the rich, well-heeled and famous. (By sheer coincidence, it turns out that my husband is absolutely correct about Amelia Earhart. Not only did the famous aviator play golf, but when she and her husband moved to Southern California in 1934, they bought a house next to a golf course.) 

I’m still taking in the panoramic view when Carolyn arrives at the tee box. I tell her my plan. Though a congenitally—and chronically—cheerful person, Carolyn looks displeased, not by my decision but by the nomenclature. “Why are they called the Hollins Tees?” she asks. “The Hollins Tees should be back there.” She’s pointing to the gold championship tees at the very back. She’s right, of course. It’s highly doubtful that Hollins herself played from anywhere but the back tees. Still, by any name, the forward tees are a welcome bonus feature for the day ahead of us. I’m thrilled that I get to start at such an advantage, every extra yard a gift.

The two men who will round out our foursome amble up to us, middle-aged guys named Bill and Roger who are strangers to us and each other. I’m so nervous about my pace that I immediately start scuttling down to the Hollins tee box. But Carolyn beckons me back. The problem with my ready-golf plan, she explains, is that I’m in the line of fire. And today that line cuts a wide swath. Even standing well off to the side isn’t completely safe, because Roger’s drives are the wildest things I’ve ever seen. He stops at the top of his backswing for a solid two seconds, loads his legs and lets it rip. I’m put in mind of a baseball swing along a vertical axis. The velocity he puts on the ball is such that it would crush anything in its way. It’s impressive, but Roger is also directionally challenged.

Roger’s first beefy drive travels low and far to the left. I marvel at the sheer novelty of it. Carolyn’s eyes grow big. Bill is speechless. I face a dilemma. If I stay behind, I’m certain to slow things down with the time it will take me to get to the tee, fuss with placing my ball (my husband has commanded me to tee the ball so that half of it is above the top of my driver, and such that the label is placed just so, to be my visual target) and hit my drive. I’d rather get hit and killed than hold anyone up. I devise a solution: At each hole, I hustle close to the Hollins tee box and crouch behind my cart as soon as I see Roger step up to the plate. While I can’t completely evade exposure, I’m confident that a strike to a protruding body part won’t be fatal.

Pasatiempo is a MacKenzie design through and through: very little distance between a green and the next tee; a minimum of hill climbing; a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but an alternate route on most holes for shorter players. MacKenzie didn’t believe courses should use rough, which he said slowed down play and frustrated the golfer. So he defended his greens with lots of bunkers. MacKenzie’s bunkers are mercifully shallow, and distinctly amoeba-like in shape. (He was, after all, a physician by training, and must have spent hundreds of hours looking through a microscope in the course of his education.) During World War I, he was an artillery officer whose job was to disguise British trenches; fittingly, he designed golf course bunkers to disappear from view as players walk away. It’s a powerful optical effect.

A true fanboy, Bill tells me that Pasatiempo’s greens are signature MacKenzie. They don’t merely undulate, they ripple—like something M.C. Escher might have dreamed up. MacKenzie’s greens fold in on themselves, breaking left, right, up and down. It takes me an extra shot or two or three to reach the green. But, sure enough, there’s my glistening green ball, custom-printed with a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Women Belong Where Decisions Are Made.” 

On the first green, Roger and I share a line to the hole. My ball is closer to the pin, but he offers to let me putt first. Naïve rube that I am, Roger’s display of courtesy seems impressive, but I see Bill and Carolyn exchanging looks. I’m not sure why.

After that long first hole, we’re just beginning to get a taste for the course, which has a reputation for being 6,500 yards of sheer brutality. “You just have to miss in the right spots,” Bill tells me. Bill is that level of golfer whose shots appear flawless to my untrained eye (unless a shot goes conspicuously awry, I’m usually convinced that every shot I see from a pretty good golfer is a miracle), but to him they are frequently disappointing. 

The third hole, an uphill par 3, gives me a good glimpse into the agony and ecstasy of playing a MacKenzie course. As every golfer knows, just because a hole is short doesn’t mean it’s easy. Still, par 3s can be a short hitter’s best friend, and whenever I come upon one, my heart skips a beat in anticipation of the possible. Pasatiempo has five par 3s, which is unusual in general, but not for MacKenzie. At least 15 of the dozens of courses he designed have five par 3s; two of them even have six. And there’s something devilish about each and every one at Pasatiempo. This is in ample evidence at the third hole, whose green is not only surrounded by bunkers on all sides—five, to be precise—but has a wicked false front. 

The greens, Bill remarks, are “Masters-esque.” Of course they are, because Jones had been so impressed by both Cypress and Pasatiempo that he hired MacKenzie to design Augusta National, and, when the Brit was too busy, he sent Hollins to Georgia in his stead to consult on design.

The Hollins tee on the 6th hole—at 567 yards, the longest here—is so far forward that I feel for the first time that day like I’m actually cheating. My shot off the tee lands close to the back of MacKenzie’s house, just left of the long, snaking fairway. White with green shutters, the home is striking in its modesty and serves as a reminder that golf course design might have made MacKenzie happy, but it didn’t make him rich. A woman is puttering in the backyard with her dog. She’s friendly, and we chat briefly. Yes, she says, people often ask her about the house. And, not infrequently, golf balls land in the yard.

Roger and I share a line again on the sixth green, and, as before, my ball is closer to the pin. Again Roger steps aside to allow me to putt. By now the group is relaxed enough with each other for Bill to call Roger out on his feint. “That’s a break you’ll be happy to get a read on,” Bill says. I’ve been played. (And no, were I a man, nothing so transparently self-serving would have occurred.) Still, grateful that Roger has yet to hit any of us with one of his wild shots, I’m happy to putt first. 

The many trees that separate most of Pasatiempo’s long holes seem as if MacKenzie planned them. But for the course’s first two decades, there were no such partitions. That changed in the 1950s, when a drive off the sixth tee killed someone on the seventh fairway, and trees were planted as protection. I think of Roger’s drives and say a quiet prayer of thanks for the cypress pines, redwoods and bay laurels that surround us. 

It might have something to do with the large cheeseburger Roger wolfs down at the turn, but something happens to him on the back nine. In truth, he goes a little haywire. As I’m happily hitting my way toward the green on the long dogleg 10th, I hear raised voices coming from the edge of the fairway. It turns out that Roger’s foul ball off the tee missed the fairway by a lot and stopped only when it hit a tree. Yet rather than hunt for his ball, Roger spotted a stray that lay smack dab in the middle of the fairway and claimed it as his own. OK, whatever. But then the rightful owner of that ball came looking for it, only to learn that Roger had already hit it, at which point Roger offered a replacement.

But the ball Roger dug out of his pocket was of vastly inferior quality to the one he had “mistaken” for his own. “This is a practice ball,” said the other guy, now visibly angry. “Mine was a Pro V1.” I get it. The guy really loved that golf ball. Were someone to steal one of my cherished RBG balls—which I believe are endowed with special powers—then hand me a range ball as a consolation prize, I’d go ballistic too.

“That guy didn’t seem too happy,” Bill says to Roger when we’re on the green. Roger just shrugs.

By now we’re on 11, an infamous hole that my husband has told me is one of his favorites in the world. “There’s a big canyon,” he warned before I left that morning. “Don’t even try to hit over it.” He’s right. I watch Carolyn hit a textbook layup, then sail her ball over the chasm in question. “I’ll meet you guys on 12,” I say, in need of a break.

As I’m headed toward the Hollins tee on 12, a loud clatter on the opposite side of the fairway gets my attention. I turn my head to see Roger’s pushcart rolling by itself down the hill and veering ominously left, toward the steep ravine that cleaves 11 from 12. And there’s Roger, sprinting after it. Slowed perhaps by the burger—to say nothing of some extra girth—Roger is outpaced, and the cart tumbles into the canyon. I observe him clambering down after it. As I watch him disappear, I’m somewhere between horrified and amused. 

Such is the wrath of Hollins, who, I’m convinced, was witness to his shenanigans on the greens and the kerfuffle on 10. One more breach of golf etiquette, pal, and she’ll throw you like a javelin straight into the Pacific. 

The three of us, meanwhile, our loyalty to Roger waning, stand on the 12th green debating whether to wait for him. We do. He finally arrives, winded but intact. Once again, Roger and I find our balls sharing a line. His is about 5 feet away and mine is a good foot closer; now feeling sorry for him, I offer to give him a read by putting first. “That’s OK,” he says sheepishly. He misses; I see the break and putt my ball in a slow arc into the hole. As we’re leaving the green, I show Bill the writing on my RBG ball, and he’s impressed by the sentiment. “My daughter would love that,” he says.

So far, all the other golfers we’ve seen are men. This is no surprise, of course. But it does make you wonder how a game so essentially graceful and meditative, played in some of the world’s most beautiful places, came to be the province largely of men. Collett was already pondering this very question nearly 100 years ago, in Ladies in the Rough, the book she wrote in 1928. When I’m not in high dudgeon over this or that sexist aspect of the game, I savor this unexpectedly welcome byproduct of playing from a tee box set well apart from everyone else: the solitude. What greets me on the left as I ascend the rise leading to the Hollins tee on 14 is an ancient riverbed whose contours have been incorporated into the fairway. Dappled in afternoon sun, the velvet-green barranca runs the length of the fairway. It strikes me as among the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever encountered. 

I arrive at 15, still basking in the beauty of 14, to find Carolyn looking across yet another gorge. It’s a short par 3, but the green is surrounded by sanded sentries. “I’m trying to decide which bunker I should aim for,” she says. I think she’s kidding. She isn’t. 

When we reach 16, half of our group knows how famous that hole is. Entire articles have been written about the 16th hole at Pasatiempo (including in this very journal). But Carolyn and I knew nothing about it. So ardent was MacKenzie’s love for the 16th green that when he died in 1934, his ashes were scattered there. I find this exciting in a macabre kind of way. I hear that Pasatiempo regulars talk to—or cuss at, as one told me—Mac-
Kenzie while on that green. First, of course, you have to get there, and he hasn’t made it easy. 

The Hollins tee on 16 is as close to the fairway as you can get without actually being on it. Near the enormous multi-level green, the fairway itself is bisected by a cart path. “I think my husband would say to aim for the cart path and bounce over,” I jokingly announce to the group. But it’s exactly what happens. My ball ricochets off the pavement with a satisfying, explosive sound like a single firework and loops across to the hill just below the green. What the 16th green lacks in bunker bloat, it makes up for with its three steep tiers. After a few Sisyphean attempts to chip my way up, I pick up my ball to watch the others putt.

Hollins, who never married, was by all accounts a gracious
and generous hostess. In her hands, Pasatiempo became a never-ending party. She wined and dined a circle of friends that included Mary Pickford, Spencer and Louise Tracy, Will Rogers, the
Rothschilds and Vanderbilts, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and other celebrated golfers of the era. Hollins frequently paid the travel expenses for relatives of lesser means from the East Coast and put them up for weeks, sometimes months, in guesthouses that dotted the
property. 

Her fortunes shifted on Dec. 2, 1937, one day before her 45th birthday, when a drunk driver crashed into her car. Hollins suffered head injuries for which she refused treatment. She never fully recovered. In 1940, she moved from her beloved Pasatiempo to Pebble Beach, and soon ran through the rest of her money. Perhaps suffering long-term effects of her injuries, she grew paranoid. She believed a sheriff was pursuing her; she hid small amounts of money at different banks; she heard telephones ringing in her head. She died in a nursing home in 1944, at the age of 51. At her funeral, so the story goes, her rakish, dipsomaniacal nephew showed up briefly, claimed to be overcome with emotion and left, saying he’d see everyone back at her place. When the rest of the group arrived, the nephew was gone, along with Aunt Marion’s silver. 

We say goodbye in the parking lot. I offer my RBG ball to Bill as a gift. “I have more,” I assure him.

As I’m leaving Pasatiempo, I take a detour on Hollins Drive to look for her house. Only the garage is visible from the street. And now it’s too dark to drive in search of her headstone at El Encinal Cemetery in Monterey. A group is working to turn her modest gravesite into a far more suitable shrine: a bench, yew trees and a memorial plaque telling her story. In 2022, she’ll be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. And not a minute too soon.