American flight 517 is my plane ride home from a pilgrimage. I have six hours in the air between me and a return to my daily routine. I’ve just paid my respects to the remains of the worlds greatest golf architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie. I went in search of the difference between good and great in golf design, and in his final resting place, I believe I found it.

The sixteenth green at Pasatiempo, MacKenzie’s favorite hole he ever designed.


The ashes of Alister Mackenzie are just as much a part of Pasatiempo Golf Club as the greens and bunkers he built there. The golf course in Santa Cruz, California is his only grave site and it is a monument to a man who helped shape golf history. Augusta, Melbourne, and Cypress Point may claim strongholds on his legacy, but the remains of the man himself are mingled with the soil that binds the turf in Santa Cruz. His other works may be sheltered masterpieces, but Pasatiempo is an accessible holy site.

Every golfer who feels a spiritual connection to the game at some point must make way to the Mecca that is Northern California. Santa Cruz is located between the Golden Gate of San Francisco and the breathtaking beauty of the Monterey Peninsula. There in Santa Cruz, perched in the foothills near the sea, is Pasatiempo.

MacKenzie made his home at Pasatiempo. His house is located just off the fairway of the sixth hole. He spent more days there than at any other course he crafted. Pasatiempo was his home course and that is where his life came to an end. In many ways, Pasatiempo is an epitaph to MacKenzie and an invitation to explore his expertise.

MacKenzie’s home off of the sixth hole fairway.


Alister MacKenzie believed in thirteen principles for great golf design and they are alive in the holes he designed at Pasatiempo. The MacKenzie principles can be seen best in three ways at Pasatiempo: The par three holes, the variety of shots needed to play the course, and the incredible routing over the natural features.

The par three holes at Pasatiempo are a perfect collection of one shotters. Each of them has a unique signature element and they all demand a daring swing of the club. MacKenzie may be best remembered for his par three holes and Pasatiempo is evidence as to why. There are five par three holes and MacKenzie makes sure you remember them the most as the eighteenth hole is one of his finest.

During my walk at Pasatiempo, I made sure to note how many clubs I used from my bag. By the eighteenth, I had swung them all at least once. I hit shots from down hill lies with short irons, to uphill lies with long irons, and sidehill lies with wedges. On the marvelous par three holes, I hit a 3 wood, 8 iron, 5 iron, sand wedge, and a 7 iron. Off the tee with the driver, I hit draws into hills and fades away from hazards. I felt like I was being tested on every aspect of my game and the test was fun.

The eighteenth hole at Pasatiempo, a courageous one shotter.

I played Pasatiempo with a desire to discover greatness in design. My time there was my first venture into MacKenzie’s work. Evidence of his genius is displayed throughout the course but it is most apparent in the way the land is used as a grounds for golf. The natural features available to the Doctor at Pasatiempo are unique and his use of them is remarkable. The terrain is hilly in nature and there are a number of cavernous barrancas that weave throughout the property. The back nine is a study on routing and the barrancas are the main theme. The barranca arteries that wind across the surface of the final nine are used in seven different holes on that side.

The course is set in beautiful surroundings with sweeping views of the Pacific in the distance used as an intermission between holes that climb hills, ridges, and swales while also traversing the signature features of the barrancas.

View from behind the eleventh green with the barranca in the foreground and Pacific in the distance.


When Mackenzie died, he was cremated and brought home to Pasatiempo to live on forever. Today that memorial is one of the few places on earth where golfers seeking to experience the mastery of Mackenzie’s work can walk in his footsteps without being a member of a prestigious club. Pasatiempo is open for public play and there are no gates to guard you from praying in this temple to the game.

If you make the pilgrimage to Pasatiempo, you should go in search of the subtle differences between good and great. Go to seek out those guiding principles that MacKenzie laid out as his vision for what great golf design should be. Play the course with eyes wide open as it is the smallest of details that make his work so special. Watch the way the land falls into all the right places and see how he draws your eye and your interest from shot to shot. Enjoy the challenges he lays before you and revel as you rise to the occasion when facing them.

MacKenzie achieved a status that so many men desire yet so few achieve. He left a legacy that has allowed his name, likeness, and ideas to live forever. When Alister MacKenzie died, he did not perish like most mortal men. He became the places which he built and found a way to live on through his work. The ashes of Alister MacKenzie were spread across the 16th green of his home course on a California winter’s day in 1934. That was the day his immortality found a permanent home in Pasatiempo.

Before I left the sixteenth green, I found the perfect place to pause for a moment in admiration of MacKenzie and his work. Just off the back of the green, near the far left corner of the putting surface is a small concrete bench. From that perch I sat and saw the afternoon fade into the evening over the most stunning green complex in America. The green stands out because of its design, but it is most memorable because of the man whose ashes are spread over that ground.

When I close my eyes in my plane seat, I drift away to that concrete bench. I see myself there and feel that warm California sun falling over me and the sixteenth green. That is a place where there is no doubt as to what greatness in golf design looks like. From that bench I imagine MacKenzie putting on the green of his favorite hole in the twilight of the day and of his life. From that bench, I could see barrancas and hills, and the holes that fall over them to create the mark of genius.

The stewardess walks by me and I’m pulled back to my seat on the plane. I’m six hours from home thinking about Pasatiempo and everything I learned on my pilgrimage there. I’m thinking about MacKenzie and the difference between good and great.

A parting view of the sixteenth green, MacKenzie’s final resting place.


Alister MacKenzie’s 13 Principles

  1. The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes.
  2. There should be a large proportion of good two-shot holes, and at least four one-shot holes.
  3. There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.
  4. The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.
  5. Every hole should be different in character.
  6. There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.
  7. The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.
  8. There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke, or portion of a stroke, shall always have an alternate route open to him.
  9. There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes — that is, interesting brassie shots, iron shots, pitch and run up shots.
  10. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.
  11. The course should be so interesting that even the scratch man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots the has hitherto been unable to play.
  12. The course should so be arranged that the long handicap player or even the absolute beginner should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score. In other words, the beginner should not be continually harassed by losing strokes from playing out of sand bunkers. The layout should be so arranged that he loses strokes because he is making wide detours to avoid hazards.
  13. The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.

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