by Vic Williams
When golf course architect Damian Pascuzzo took his first look at a stretch of dramatic semi-dunesland near the Central California town of Nipomo, the traditionalist in him must have leapt for joy, while the mad scientist in him — the guy looking to turn the whole, overworked “links” idea on its head and push it into fascinating new territory — simply couldn’t be contained. He had sand to work with, and trees, and big, swooping, fescue-covered hills. He had it all.
When Monarch Dunes debuted in early 2006, it was clear that Pascuzzo’s cagey, curvaceous lass worked amazingly well within the developer’s modern housing project mold. He kept homesites well away from or above playing areas, and even today, homes never impinge on the course’s ability to rouse sharp emotions with every teebox or greenside view. Still, Monarch Dunes’ soul is rooted in the links and heathland courses of Scotland and Ireland. “The site itself really dictated that it had to be links style,” says Pascuzzo, a California native and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo graduate who works out of El Dorado Hills, near Sacramento, where he was the longtime design partner of the late Robert Muir Graves. “The soil is pure sand. If you look across Highway 1, you see all the dunes, then the ocean. We had to do that style of golf course; it would be a shame to do anything else.”
Pascuzzo and his design consultant, PGA Tour player and Central Coast native Steve Pate, excelled at nailing Alister MacKenzie’s No. 1 criterion for great golf design: Variety. When standing on the No. 1, tee you think it’s going to be all water and modern-feeling, but by No. 5 — a little “postage stamp” par 3 surrounded by fescue-bearded dunes that creates visions of No. 12 at Royal Liverpool — you know this ain’t no basic residential track.
Holes 6 through 8 are the finest three-hole stretch on the Central Coast. On No. 6 the drive must clear tufts of devil’s grass, then a big ridge that bisects several holes, then barrel to the bottom of a hill, just short of a lake, if there’s any chance of getting back up to the severely elevated, mega-deep, double-tiered green in two. It’s not just a good hole, it’s a great one; draped in tall eucalyptus with comely curves, it harkens to Bandon Trails and elicits a giddy feeling when you first see it.
No. 10 is another hole that, once Pascuzzo and Pate started digging, veered them off the blueprint.
“The original concept was a more traditional dogleg-left with bunkers down the left side. Then we realized this was our one opportunity to create a split fairway. We dropped the tee box five or six feet. You’ve got to hit a pretty good tee shot to knock it up there on the left, but you’re two clubs shorter than from the right. And the bunkering was just artistry in the field.”
From there Monarch Dunes keeps the spirit engaged through hill and dale, over frog-haired bunkers and across velvet bentgrass greens. “There’s a little bit of mystery in Monarch Dunes,” Pascuzzo says. “On No. 18, you know you hit it straight ahead, but what happens after that? That’s all intentional. No. 12 is the same way — you have to drive it up the fairway before you see the rest of the hole. It’s like the older courses in the Bay Area. You play it a second time and you’ll be a lot more comfortable; a third time, you’ll feel like you’ve known it a long time.”
Good as the Old Course is, Pascuzzo didn’t stop there. Next door is the fascinating Challenge Course, perhaps the best, and toughest, par-3 course in California — a dozen pure links holes with greens draped between heaving hills of sand and grass. A morning round on the big course, a great sandwich or salad in the clubhouse and an afternoon stroll through the Challenge? We can’t think of a better, or more fun, way to carve out 30 holes of fascinating coastal golf.