ARDMORE, Pa. -- What makes Merion so hard?
That was a popular question on Sunday night after the East course humbled the best players in the world.
Matt Kuchar gave perhaps the most succinct answer: "Nobody can break par."
Few believed at the beginning of the week that 1-over par would be the winning score, especially after the rains softened the par-70 6,996-yard Hugh Wilson design.
Justin Rose may have won the tournament with that gritty and courageous total, but this course, which opened in 1912, was the real champion this week.
Rose, a 32-year-old Englishman, was the sole survivor of a brutaly difficult setup. He beat 155 golfers, but not the course.
The field had a stroke average of 74.5526 for the week. The Open hadn't been this difficult since 2007, when Oakmont had a 75.705 average.
"The [USGA] had to do what they had to do to make the scoring where they want it," said Jason Dufner, who tied for the low round on Sunday with a 67, and finished the tournament in a tie for fourth. "I know they don't say that they do that, but it seems to work out that way every year."
Protecting par is an unwritten, but often talked about, strategy by the USGA to ensure the national championship is respected and exalted as the most challenging test in golf. The rest of the year, players can shoot 20-under in regular Tour events, but not in the U.S. Open.
This week, the USGA protected par with deep rough, tricky pin placements and some of the hardest holes in recent years at the majors.
Rory McIlroy, who set a tournament record of 16-under when he won the 2011 Open at a very benign Congressional, said that some of the pin placements on Sunday at Merion were on the verge of being unfair. He gave as an example the 340-yard par-4 seventh hole, where the pin was on the back slope. In most cases, the tournament crew would have found a flat place to put the pin, but instead they stuck it on a ridge.
How many times have you seen a 266-yard par-3 or a 521-yard par-4? On Sunday, only four players that finished in the top 10 had a par on that 266-yard third hole, where Phil Mickelson had one of his two double-bogeys in his final round.
Mickelson said after the round that he needed to hit driver on the hole.
"The third hole was a very tough par, in fact, 274 [to the pin] into a 20-mile-an hour wind," Mickelson said after finishing in a tie for second, the sixth time he has finished second in the U.S. Open. "I didn't really have the shot to get back there."
In what world should it be necessary to hit a driver into a par-3?
The 521-yard 18th, famous for being the place where Ben Hogan safely found the green with a 1-iron to get into a playoff that he won at the '50 Open, was essentially a par-5 this week. No matter how well players hit their drives on the hole, most of them had to hit at least a hybrid more than 200 yards into a severely undulating green that's difficult to hold with anything longer than an 8-iron.
Ian Poulter called it probably the hardest hole in golf right now.
Seldom do Tour players have to contend with out-of-bounds being one pace off the fairway like it was at the 15th hole. Dufner was 5-under for the day and 3-over for the tournament when he pulled his drive out of bounds on the hole, costing him a real chance at posting a number to put pressure on the leaders.
"It's a tough angle," Dufner said. "You've got out-of-bounds literally one pace from the fairway, which is a little unnerving. It's the kind of hole that you feel like you want to push at it off the tee, because the green is very severe.
"It could be one of your last realistic birdie chances with a scoring club. But as I learned today, you can definitely pay the price for pushing it."
Dufner said that he wasn't surprised to see the winning score at 1-over par.
"The toughest thing was when you got birdie chances inside of 15 feet, the majority of the time you were playing defense, depending on the hole location and where you were, which is tough for us because we're used to having 15 feet and going for it," Dufner said.
The U.S. Open should force the best players in the world to reach for new levels of precision and accuracy in their games, but on Sunday, Merion threatened to be a preserve for a blooper reel.
Even-par and a shot off the lead, Steve Stricker hit his tee shot out of bounds on the par-5 second hole. Then from the fairway off his second drive, he shanked his fourth shot out of bounds, which led to a triple-bogey. On the next hole, he had the nearly impossible task -- as a relatively short hitter -- of trying to hit that long par-3 that was playing into the wind. He made a bogey there and was never really in contention again after going 5-over through his first five holes.
Meanwhile, Luke Donald, who like Stricker was also trying to win his first major championship, was making a mess out of Merion's front nine.
Donald's demise on Sunday started at the third hole, where he had to hit driver to the par-3. The 35-year-old Englishman's drive there hit a young woman.
"I hit her in the elbow," said Donald, who finished tied for eighth, "And she was in some pain and felt a little bit faint, and I felt a little bit faint, too.
"Unfortunately you never like that to happen, and it was a very tough break for her."
Donald made bogey at three and then went bogey, bogey, double-bogey, birdie, bogey, bogey for a 42 on the front.
It was ugly.
Every golfer will have a horror story about Merion after this week. They won't soon forget the rough, the long par-3s or the tricky pin placements. They will appreciate and relish the chances at Las Vegas and Palm Springs, when they can shoot 20-under par.
And Rose will remember for a lifetime that he endured Merion better than anyone else at the 113th U.S. Open.