Tee to Green: Talking Merion with its assistant pro

With the U.S. Open fast approaching, Tee to Green sat down with George Forster Jr., PGA assistant professional at host site Merion Golf Club.

Forster, who is in his sixth season at the Ardmore, Pa., club, talks course conditions, toughest holes and Tiger Woods' practice round. Then he picks a winner.

Q: Merion has undergone some serious adjustments in preparation for the U.S. Open. The rough is thicker, the greens are faster, the fairways are narrower and the tee boxes are farther back. What are the most significant adjustments the course has undergone and how do you think the players will fare?

A: Merion is a golf course that will not only challenge the best players in the world, it will identify them.

The main thing I noticed about the adjustments by the USGA is that they made the tough holes (Nos. 3, 5, 6, 14, 15, 17 and 18) tougher, but they kept the "easier" holes (Nos. 1, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 13) easy. Graduated rough will be used on the longer, harder holes, but not on the shorter, easier holes. Sure, as with any U.S. Open, disaster lurks around every corner, but birdies will be more than possible on the easier holes.

Q: Of the new features, which will prove toughest?

A: The biggest adjustment the players will face is the elimination of the first cut of rough. A few extra feet of fairway or short grass (non rough) has been eliminated on both sides of each hole. To give some relief, the grounds crew designed an angled, or beveled, blade to allow players to hit a shot when their ball is in the fairway, but up against the rough.

Q: The par-3s are getting a lot of attention for their challenging nature. Which hole do you think will play the hardest and why?

A: The par-3s are going to be brutal. Numbers 3, 9, and 17 will all play over 230 yards and running the ball up is not an option on any of them. Number 13 is a great, short par-3 -- birdie can be had but missing the green will test your short game to make par. The 13th also serves as the last birdie opportunity heading into arguably the most difficult last five holes in both golf and U.S. Open history.

I think No. 3 will play as the toughest par-3 because of sheer length, with the ability to stretch over 270 yards. Really, though, you could throw Nos. 3, 9 and 17 in a "hardest hole" hat and I wouldn't be surprised by any at the end of the tournament.

Q: Tiger Woods practiced Merion last week. Did you have an opportunity to see any of the round? If so, did you take away anything from the experience?

A: I was very fortunate to be one of seven people to walk the golf course with Tiger last Tuesday. Also present were Woods' caddie Joe LaCava, Merion general manager Christine Pooler, U.S. Senior Amateur winner George "Buddy" Marucci, another assistant pro and two police officers.

I only watched the last five holes, but it was absolutely amazing. To be able to observe one of the best in that intimate, personal setting is truly a once- in-a-lifetime experience.

One thing I noticed about Tiger was how conservative his game is. He hit irons and fairway woods off the tees, played to the generous part of the fairways and didn't try to take more than the holes gave him. He also spent most of his round hitting to different locations where he believed the pins would be.

Q: Speaking of Tiger's round, some people argued it was disrespectful for the world No. 1 to wear cargo shorts at Merion. Do you agree? Is there anything you want to say to those making that argument?

A: Merion has a strict dress code which parallels its rich history, but when you open your club to a U.S. Open, you are, in a sense, opening your club to the public.

When members of the public enter our golf shop to purchase merchandise, we try to regulate dress code violations, but that is a full-time job in its own right. It's impossible to regulate all of the violations.

In Tiger's case, it was the Tuesday after Memorial Day and the club was closed. I see nothing wrong with it.

Q: You received on-air thanks from the Golf Channel's Frank Nobilo this week. As a 28-year-old professional in the industry, what has it been like to have the golfing world descend on your course for one of the biggest events in the game?

A: As a golf professional, this is the ultimate. It's the biggest golf tournament in the world returning to one of the greatest venues. I've been soaking it all in, trying to be a part of as much as I can. My coworkers and I have met some influential people in the golfing world. We are fortunate to be in this rare position

Q: Lastly, who do you think will win and why?

A: I'm taking Graeme McDowell this week because of his ability to perform under intense pressure, as well as his accurate driving and steady putter.

Weather will play a major role. It will affect the scores dramatically. If it's firm and fast, McDowell will finish at even-par. If its soft and wet, he'll end at minus-8.

I can't believe I just bet against Tiger, but I can't go chalk.

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: Yes, I have a few interesting facts about Merion.

After finishing the layout, course designer Hugh Wilson had a ticket on the Titanic, but he changed his plans at the last minute.

The course was built in 1912, but the layout that's played today was completed in 1928.

The East course was built in reaction to the introduction of the Haskell ball, which traveled farther than its predecessor, gutties, and rendered the original Merion layout too short.

Ironically, at less than 7,000 yards, the East course is now deemed too short by some.