By Mark Lamport-Stokes
ARDMORE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Like a vintage bottle of wine brought out of the cellar after gathering dust for 32 years, Merion Golf Club's iconic East Course made a welcome return as host of the U.S. Open - and did so in classic style.
The challenging par-70 layout with its brutally difficult finish had long been regarded as too short to stage one of golf's four major championships, many feeling that it had become obsolete due to the power and technology in the modern game.
Torrential rain during the tournament build-up had softened the 6,996-yard East Course, prompting some to predict a birdie binge with the possibility of the major record score of 63 being threatened.
However, those suggestions were consigned to the scrap heap as the 113th U.S. Open slowly unfolded at Merion before Justin Rose ending a marathon week of weather-delayed rounds and, at times, harsh conditions for the players with a two-shot victory.
Englishman Rose, remarkably poised despite all his challenges in the final round, revived memories of Ben Hogan's victory at the 1950 U.S. Open staged here as he parred the daunting 511-yard 18th in champion fashion.
Rose closed with a level-par 70 on a breezy day at Merion where the narrow, tilting fairways, thick rough and fast, sloping greens posed all sorts of problems for the players, all of them knowing that just one bad swing could end a title bid.
Add to that tough pin positions and the number of blind or semi-blind shots so often required to be hit on the East Course, it is no surprise that the average score during last week's championship ended up being 74.54.
The winning total of one-over 281 offered clear proof that Merion had certainly stood the test of time in staging its first U.S. Open since Australian David Graham triumphed by three shots in the 1981 edition.
"I don't think anybody expected this golf course to hold up the way it did," Rose told reporters on Sunday after clinching his first major crown, and his fifth victory on the U.S. PGA Tour.
"I certainly didn't buy into the (predicted) 62s and 14-under, but I figured that maybe four, five, six under par would be the winning total. But it surprised everybody. I'm just glad I was kind of the last man standing."
Ernie Els, a twice former U.S. Open champion, gave Merion a ringing endorsement.
"It's been an unbelievable venue this week," the big South African said after finishing with a 69 to share fourth place, four strokes behind Rose. "The course definitely held up.
"Started the week with people saying there could be record scores. I totally disagreed with that. It was a great setup. The rough was tough.
"Everything about it was just wonderful, and the fans were unbelievable. It definitely shouldn't wait another 32 years."
Ireland's triple major champion Padraig Harrington, who tied for 21st after signing off with a 72, also praised Merion's virtues.
"The course is great. It was a big test with massive greens. Real difficult. I'm glad they weren't firm and fast," smiled Harrington. "The golf course played super as it was this week. I, for one, would come back."
American Jim Furyk, who won his only major title at the 2003 U.S. Open but missed the cut at Merion after battling to scores of 77 and 79, felt the difficulty of the East Course hinged on its set-up.
"You could set Merion up to where 10 over par would win and you could set Merion up where 10 under would win," said PGA Tour veteran Furyk.
"They (organisers) were very protective of it. Where they hid the pin placements, how they backed the tees up on some of the longer holes, I felt they were definitely protective of par.
"It's a wonderful old golf course. It's a testament to a golf course that it doesn't have to be 7,800 yards to be a great golf course and Merion will always stand the test of time."
The biggest concern for organisers last week related to logistics. Holding the U.S. Open in the cramped suburban surrounds of Merion is, scale-wise, like taking the Super Bowl to a small-college football field.
Merion is hemmed in by a railway line, private homes, public roads and the neighbouring Haverford College, which provided 25 acres of its campus during U.S. Open week for an operational compound, several hospitality tents and an 800-car parking lot.
"Our question all along was, 'Could we pull off the operations of this event?' We were pleasantly surprised," said United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis.
"It was never a question of, 'Would the golf course stand up?' It's always been short relative to other championship sites, and it's always, always held its own. It's always a great test of golf. And we knew it would be."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)