Wawona Hotel Golf Course basks in the glow of Yosemite National Park

By Tom LaMarre, Contributor

WAWONA, Calif. -- Alister MacKenzie, one of golf's most revered architects, made his mark in California and, in fact, lived the last few years of his life and died in the coastal city of Santa Cruz.

Wawona Hotel Golf Course
No on knows for sure if Alister MacKenzie designed Wawona Hotel Golf Course in Yosemite National Park.
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Hwy 41
Wawona, California 95389
Mariposa County
Phone(s): (209) 375-6572
Website: travelyosemite.com/things-to-do/golfing
9 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 35 | 3050 yards | ... details »

MacKenzie left Californians such traditional layouts as the Valley Club of Montecito in Santa Barbara, Haggin Oaks Golf Course in Sacramento, Stockton Golf and Country Club, the Meadow Club in Fairfax, Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, Northwood Golf Course in Monte Rio and Delta View Golf Course in Pittsburg.

He also designed acclaimed Pasatiempo Golf Course in Santa Cruz, where he was living in a house on the sixth hole when he died in 1934. Pasatiempo boasts MacKenzie's favorite hole in golf, the 395-yard 17th, which requires a blind tee shot and an uphill approach over a creek to a three-tired green.

Best known for his work with the great Bobby Jones at Augusta National and his classic design at Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, MacKenzie also left for golfers an enduring mystery.

MacKenzie is listed in several places, including California Golf, as designer of the Wawona Hotel Golf Course in Yosemite National Park, yet there is no definitive evidence that he ever saw the place.

Research by Al Gonzalez, general manger of the venerable Wawona Hotel, indicates that Walter G. Favarque of San Francisco was the primary designer of the scenic nine hole course, which blends seamlessly into the pines of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

But the research also uncovered references to MacKenzie and Peter Hay, whose family was instrumental in the development of Pebble Beach as a golf Mecca. The par-three course at the Pebble Beach Golf Links bears Hay's name.

"We don't know if MacKenzie ever walked this property," said Kevin Sleight, the pro at Wawona. "One story that I have heard from people who have been here for a while was that Favarque sent his plans to MacKenzie to take a look at.

"It could be that MacKenzie oversaw the project from afar. There seems to be some connection, but we aren't sure just what it was."

What is known is that the Washburn family, which bought Wawona Hotel in 1875, ran in high society circles in San Francisco that included the Hay family and their friends, the Del Montes, who built the Del Monte Lodge in Pebble Beach.

MacKenzie, a British immigrant of Scottish heritage, was a social climber and something of a party animal who enjoyed rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. He was friends of the Hays and the Del Montes.

"I've looked through everything I have on MacKenzie and I don't find anything to indicate he had anything to do with Wawona," said Bob Wiesberger, something a MacKenzie historian who lives in Burlingame.

"It doesn't mean that evidence that he did it doesn't exist. It doesn't mean he was never there. Who knows?"

One intriguing story that golfers have been telling for years about the MacKenzie connection to Wawona obviously is not true.

MacKenzie, so the story goes, was working on his project at Cypress Point, which some experts believe is the greatest golf course in the world. According to the story, torrential rains flooded the Monterey Peninsula and halted work on the project.

In the interim, according to the tale, MacKenzie took a trip to Yosemite and was told by officials that they had a golf course project in mind. MacKenzie supposedly designed nine holes Wawona but had to leave to finish Cypress Point. He promised to return and design the back nine but never did.

We know it's a tall tale because Wawona opened in 1918 and Cypress Point was not completed until 1928.

"We know Peter Hay was here in 1917 but we don't know about MacKenzie," Gonzalez said. "The Washburns were such good friends with the Hays that Wawona (Washburn, who died two years ago), called him Uncle Pete.

"When people play the course, they say the tee boxes are a MacKenzie-type design. They are all built up about a foot or so, all but the ninth hole, which is flat. Other people say the bunkers are like MacKenzie, but I don't know."

One thing Gonzalez knows for sure about Wawona is that the golf course you see there now probably is what will be there forever.

There might have been a chance at one time to finish the course with an additional nine holes, but because of conservationists and government bureaucracy it would be next to impossible to get that done.

"There's plenty of room for it but the government will never OK it," Gonzalez said. "They won't let you touch this land. In fact, there was talk a few years ago about closing the golf course but people were up in arms when they heard about it, so that didn't happen.

"You have a hard time getting anything done. We don't have a driving range so I wanted to put in a warm-up area with a couple of hitting cages. It took almost two years and a lot of paperwork before we got the OK.

"And what we got was one little cage, next to the parking lot by the tennis courts. It isn't even by the pro shop. A lot of people don't even know it's there because it is so much out of the way."

The course alongside the Merced River is in a tranquil pastoral setting across two-lane Highway 41 from the rustic Wawona Hotel, a national historical monument that was built in 1856.

It's a bit surreal to drive up to Wawona and see a well maintained golf course among the ponderosa pine and incense cedar trees that line the fairways in a national park at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

"Our superintendent, Kim Porter, has been here for 25 years and he really knows his craft," Sleight said. "He keeps the course in exceptional shape, even during the summer when it gets very hot.

"It's a classic course, the first built in the Sierra and the first within the boundary of a national park. It's a mountain course but there aren't a lot of elevation changes. It's built on a pretty flat piece of ground."

Wawona's nine holes play to only 3,035 yards and a par of 35, but don't be deceived because only the par fives--No. 1 and 3, which play in the neighborhood of 470 yards -- can be considered short.

There are three par threes, the 229-yard second hole, the picturesque 185-yard sixth hole and the deceptive 167-yard eighth, which has a bunker to the right of the postage stamp green and woods to the left.

"The par threes are very challenging," Sleight said. "The sixth hole is our 'Nursery Hole,' because all sorts of animals, even bears, seem to come out of the woods their with their young and watch the golfers.

"No. 7 (402 yards) is our signature hole. You have a blind tee shot over the hill through the threes to a narrow fairway, and the approach shot is down hill. It's just a beautiful golf hole."

A plaque next to the green commemorates the first community in Yosemite established by wilderness explorer John Muir of Scotland 150 years ago. The exact spot is located about 50 yards into the woods behind the green.

Another unique feature of Wawona is a periscope on the 349-yard fifth tee because of another blind tee shot. Be sure to check the periscope to see that the group ahead is out of range before hitting your tee ball.

Wawona is located four miles from the South Entrance of Yosemite and six miles from the Mariposa Big Trees, redwoods that are the oldest and biggest living things on earth. The "Grizzly Giant" tree is 2,700 years old.

"President Teddy Roosevelt stayed here, and more recently Brad Pitt and Robert Redford," Sleight said.

The Wawona Hotel is a cluster of eight, white wooden New England-style buildings set on a huge lawn on what was the site of Clark Station. Galen Clark, Yosemite's original superintendent and guardian, chose a spot that the local Miwok Indians called "Pallachun," or "a good place to stop," to build a lodge. Henry Washburn renamed the site Wawona, Miwok for "Big Trees." In 1876, Washburn built Clark Cottage, the oldest structure in the complex, followed by the main hotel building in 1879.

Most of the 104 guestrooms open onto the Wawona's signature verandas and are reminiscent of European-style hotel rooms. The rooms are furnished in period pieces and antiques. There are no telephones or televisions. Among the other summer activities for hotel guests are tennis, swimming, hiking and fishing. Winter sports include cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and skiing at nearby Badger Pass Ski Resort. Accommodations in Yosemite Valley, 30 miles to the north, include the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, which opened in 1927, and Yosemite Lodge, which is located at the foot of majestic Yosemite Falls.

Other golf courses in the area include Johnny Miller's Brighton Crest Golf and Country Club in Friant, the Ahwahnee Golf Club in Ahwahnee, River Creek Golf Course in Ahwahnee and Yosemite Lakes Park Golf Course in Coarsegold.

It is said that Muir's ghost wanders through the woods in Yosemite. Perhaps MacKenzie is here too, searching for nine more holes.

Tom LaMarre, Contributor

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.

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