Arnold Palmer has a...vibe, shall we say, when considering his vast portfolio of course design work. It’s always dangerous to generalize, especially with someone who has traveled as far as he, but I like to live dangerously so I’ll go ahead and boil the Palmer approach down to one course (which he ironically did not design, but tweaked to no end as his base of operations): Bay Hill. Metaphorically, this is to say that Palmer could create clever golf holes but, often, the visual appeal of water and the threat of splashdown was either what he sold or what club owners were buying.
The Club at Tartan Fields epitomizes Palmer’s Janusian approach.
The opening two holes offer the opportunity to end in the red, despite their short distances (just 373 and 385, respectively, from the back tees). The first makes all approach shots a trick, as the shot will be slightly uphill while the green runs away; it’s a technique that some will sniff at but that I do not...I appreciate the number of variables I needed to consider, even if only one shot into the round. No. 2 rewarded my play to the inside of the dogleg with a series of mounds that blocked the view to the green; the more risky play would have been to the large bunker at the elbow, which offered a clear view. Very satisfactory holes, both.
No. 3 is not a bad hole; it rewards those who keep the ball on the upper plateau right with an even approach to a very wide, shallow green; those who fall off to the left will not be penalized in terms of angle, but the uphill loft across a creek and bunker barrier will be a much tougher shot. Fair enough; I find this green variety almost as shallow as its shape, but a one-off is no knock.
Unfortunately, it appears elsewhere throughout Tartan, and by now Palmer’s thirst for water has reared its soggy head. No. 10 is another short par four (400 from the back) where, theoretically, those who can draw like Albrecht Dürer can get in position to take a nice angle into this green, tilting bottom left-to back right while a creek sits in front. The hole repeats itself at No. 12, but this time with a tree positioned along the left so that the optimal line in is now blocked. Most players who find the fairway will be looking at the portrait view of a pancake, fronted by death. This penal tendency peaks at No. 17, a par three that calls for a shot to take the 90-degree angle into another horizontal green, nearly 50 yards wide yet perhaps 15 deep. It could be seen as the less tactical response to No. 12 at Muirfield Village Golf Club, right across the road.
And therein lies the problem, I think. Muirfield Village Country Club was not created as a competitor to the Golf Club, but rather a more affordable, playable version of MVGC for other members of the Muirfield Village community. Tartan Fields attempts to balance the need for both a playable course within its separate development and a “championship” challenge akin to The Memorial’s host. Those familiar with the MVGC know that its employ of water hazards is a design strategy aimed at PGA professionals...more soul-crushing for the casual member. The holes mentioned above, plus the island green at No. 8, are indicative of an era and a mindset.
This is not to say that water, of itself, is a problem, or that Palmer is incapable of using it in quality ways. My two favorite holes at Tartan feature drink, as well as alternative paths that are subtly just as likely to result in a high score. For example, No. 7 has a pond (and a swan!) left of the green, which is divided in the middle by a ridge. That ridge continues through the shortgrass area right of the green; those who miss to the right for fear of water must make sure to be on the correct side of the ridge, as a pitch across it is no sure thing. The closing hole, a more stout par four (450 yards), offers a clear look at birdie when the flag is on the left, lower tier. That means considering the creek left...and putting the ball on the upper tier to the right will mean a tough two-putt. Likewise, targeting flags on the upper platform require a shot blinded by a hill-full of bunkers on the right of the fairway...while the visible landing area left means another tough two-putt.
Tartan Fields is a sum of Palmer’s sensibilities as a golfer: the winner of back-to-back Open Championships and a true lover of the skill and strategy required to win on links golf courses, as well as a perpetual salesman who understood what his customers wanted. My play here was reminiscent of my son eating Chinese food...happily chomping at most holes, while pulling out bits of vegetable here and there.
Date: August 23, 2021