Speaking at Merion, Faldo says Philly-area has major possibilities

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Nick Faldo signs golf bag during The First Tee fundraiser at Merion last night.

Those who truly understand sports, especially at the youth level, know that being a part of athletics should not be solely about winning, but rather a barometer about the ways of life.

Hard work, being a good teammate, showing good sportsmanship, those are all trademarks in sports that also equate to life.

That is the lesson of The First Tee, which held a fundraiser last night at Merion Golf Club. They piggybacked the event with the AT&T Tournament which is being held at nearby Aronimink Golf Club. Last night's guest speaker was analyst Nick Faldo, in town to help with the television coverage of the event for CBS and The Golf Channel.

The Greater Philadelphia Scholastic Golf Association was incorporated in 1979 by businessmen and golfers to help introduce young kids to the game of golf. The GPSGA was awarded The First Tee Chapter status in 2003 and a year later opened a teaching facility at FDR Golf Course. Since then, more than 8,500 youngsters have participated in the program.

"In 2003 the thoughts of doing something like this wasn't even on the planet," said TFT executive director John MacDonald as he looked over at Faldo and the crowd of about 250. "To have the AT&T at Aronimink and get Nick in here while he's in town is just fantastic. The First Tee is not just about golf, values are really what it's all about. We like to say it's learning life through golf."

In a huge tent overlooking the beautifully meticulous course, which will host the U.S. Open in 2013, Faldo's English charm was on full display as he greeted fans and sipped a red wine from his own collection.

The six-time majors champion (three British Opens, three Masters), who will turn 54 later this month, believes our area is a perfect place to be hosting major tournaments, as proven by Aronimink and, no doubt, by Merion in a couple of years.

"This is absolutely a great place for major golf," said Faldo. "I love Aronimink - the golf course and the surroundings of the place. The winding roads that surround the course are beautiful and remind me a lot of the English countryside. It's a fantastic course, one that is very receptive to the players, to hosting professional golf.

"I like to look at courses and find the spots of the course that are going to be hard spots for the players. I think the greens are fantastic, a thing of beauty. There is one green where the players don't really have a place to land the ball, there are so many slices. I love that about courses and Aronimink has many places that really make the players have to think about what they are going to do. Sometimes they can't do what they want to do and they truly struggle."

Though he only played Merion once "about 10 years ago" Faldo fondly recalled some of the course and believes it will be a special host in 2013.

"The history of the place, with the picture of Ben Hogan [hitting a 1 iron on the 18th hole at Merion in the 1950 U.S. Open], the sweet second shot that you have to hit on No. 8."

Now that his playing days are mostly over, Faldo busies himself with his No. 1 job as analyst, but also with his winemaking and helping with the design of courses around the world. Places like Aronimink, he says, lend to his ideas when helping to create a course.

"All the golf I've played all over the world, it is always like practice to me," he said. "I always looked at golf courses and what would I do as a designer. I have a genuine passion for it, love it. I've seen the best courses by the best architects and to me the best ones are the ones with the little subtleties. Like Merion and Aronimink, I like how they've stood the test of time. It inspires the Tour to come back to these great courses.

"I like to see the courses that switch guys off. I don't think the scare factor for the courses has to be distance. I'm a fan of the smaller holes. I know the shots the pros hate, holding that nine iron and knowing that you can't pull it 3 feet one way or you will lose the ball. That's the sort of thing I try to create in a golf course. I look at places like Aronimink and I put things [in the memory] and I pull them out when I'm helping to create a new course."

Faldo finished his evening with a question-and-answer session, with subjects ranging from his playing career to whether Tiger Woods will be regain his form (he said the injuries need to be fully healed). One of his final answers mirrored the themes of the evening, talking about the young and the game of golf.

"I think the game of golf is standing up well," he said. "We have a great group of youngsters and a lot of good characters in the game. There are many great rivalries. Golf is solid. It will survive."

MacDonald smiled as Faldo said that. He knows The First Tee will ensure that the game will survive. *