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A kinder, more gentle era of the US Open

The most famous comeback in the U.S. Open began with a question from Arnold Palmer as he tried to explain how he could win in 1960 at Cherry Hills despite being seven shots behind.

"Doesn't 280 always win the Open?" he asked.

The U.S. Open usually plays as a par 70, and four rounds at even par was 280. That once was the standard for winning the major known as the toughest test in golf. Even as Ken Venturi talked about his 1964 win at Congressional, he noted becoming only the second player in U.S. Open history to break 280.

This year, such a score was barely enough to be in the top 10.

The 111th U.S. Open will be remembered foremost as the coming out party of Rory McIlroy, a supremely gifted 22-year-old from Northern Ireland. For all the records he broke, his most remarkable feat was making golf look easy. Few others can do that.

The other memory? All those red numbers on the scoreboard.

McIlroy finished at 16-under 268, two sets of numbers that are simply astounding for this major. The runner-up was Jason Day of Australia at 8 under, which would have been enough to win 46 of the previous 50 U.S. Opens and force a playoff in three others.

This was as easy as a U.S. Open gets.

"I don't want to say anything to cheapen what Rory did, because if this were an old-school U.S. Open, he might have won by more," said Andy North, a two-time winner of the "old-school" U.S. Open. "But he hit seven wedges into the green on the front nine. I guarantee you that's never happened in a U.S. Open."

Even USGA executive director Mike Davis said Congressional was a pushover.

"From 1 to 10 — with 1 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest — I'm not so sure Congressional wouldn't have been a 1 or a 1½," Davis said Tuesday. "If we had another 10 U.S. Opens there, I don't know how it would play any easier."

That wasn't an indictment of Congressional, but the hand the USGA was dealt.

Overnight rain kept the greens soft. Pitch marks returned to the U.S. Open. There was rarely more than a breeze all four days. And most curious of all, Davis said the rough didn't grow.

"Even though the height of rough should have been enough, it wasn't," he said.

This isn't the first time the turf was soft for a major designed to be hard.

It was like that at Baltusrol in 1980, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf both opened with rounds of 63, and it was like that at Baltusrol in 1993 when a record 10 players broke 280. North said the hardest course he ever saw was Medinah in 1990, and he figured something around 7-over par might be enough to win.

"It rained overnight, I came to the golf course Thursday morning and somebody was already 7 under," he said.

These things happen.

It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the low scores at Congressional. While there were eight scores below 280 and McIlroy won with a score that looked like it belonged at the Phoenix Open, four of the previous six U.S. Open champions failed to break par.

What last week proved is that under Davis, the U.S. Open no longer can be accused of stopping at nothing to protect par. Because given the chance, it did nothing. Not when McIlroy needed only 26 holes to reach 10 under. Not when he became the first player to shoot a sub-200 score after 54 holes.

The USGA did not stretch the course to its full 7,574 yards. The hole locations were not on ridges. It cared more about the quality of the winner and the tournament than the absurdity of the score.

"It was awesome what Rory was able to do," Davis said. "He would have won our U.S. Open whether it was firm, fast and windy or soft and player-friendly. He just played the best that week. I really think we had firm conditions, if we had some breeze, he would have won by more than eight."

What to expect next year at Olympic Club?

The fear is fog. The expectation in San Francisco for June is dry weather and a strong breeze. The hope is for the most rigorous test in golf. There will be a plan in place. And the low score will win.

There is a different mentality at the USGA from generations past, such as the time Johnny Miller shot 63 on a rain-softened Oakmont course in the 1973 U.S. Open. The USGA got even a year later in the "Massacre at Winged Foot," won by Hale Irwin at 7-over par.

"It's not going to be a 1974 U.S. Open," Davis said.

For those who have been around the U.S. Open for decades, who have seen or experienced the punishment this major can inflict, it's not easy to accept low scoring. Some people take pleasure out of the best players being made to look ordinary, and no other major does that as consistently as the U.S. Open.

As for the kinder, more gentle USGA? North thinks that's a mistake.

The players love how Davis introduced the graduated rough, which is thicker the farther away from the fairway. That might be the first indication that it's too easy. Players aren't supposed to like anything at the U.S. Open except for Sunday when they leave.

"Everybody knew those greens were going to be soft. My argument was, 'Why don't we have more rough? Why do we play the ladies' tees on half the holes?' Those were kind of things us angry old men were discussing," North said. "What has always set our championship apart from the other majors was the mental gymnastics you had to go through just to survive."