GULLANE, Scotland – Two dozen cameras were in position Monday morning to capture the first big moment of this British Open, only they weren’t anywhere near the golf course. They waited in the driveway as a silver station wagon pulled through the gate and stopped in front of the clubhouse at Muirfield.
Ernie Els climbed out of the back seat holding the shiny claret jug he won last year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and he promptly handed it over to Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson.
“Thank you,” Dawson told him. “You’ve been a great champion.”
Now it’s up to the 43-year-old South African to reclaim the silver prize, and that doesn’t figure to be easy.
Els won last month in Germany. He won the last time the Open was played at Muirfield in 2002. He has more top 10s in the British Open than any other major. But he has this piece of history working against him — the last major champion in his 40s to successfully defend his title was Old Tom Morris, and that was 151 years ago.
The Big Easy is not a betting man, but he was asked to pick someone to wager a pound on at Muirfield.
“I’d have to look at the odds, wouldn’t I?” he said, trying to buy time. “Maybe a long shot. I like to go for the long shots.”
That’s what he might have been considered last year at Royal Lytham. He was winless on a major tour in two years, failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time in nearly two decades and was No. 40 in the world. But he was close to flawless on the back nine and was the recipient of a shocking collapse by Adam Scott, who made bogey on his last four holes to finish one shot behind.
Back to the wager. He was asked who should be considered in the pole position.
“To name one, I’m going to have to name 20,” Els said. “That’s how close it is. I don’t know. A guy who likes the layout. A guy who likes the bounces. I’m not sure.”
That was a good start.
Els is well aware of the quality of champions Muirfield tends to produce, from Harry Vardon and James Braid to Walter Hagen and Henry Cotton, from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, along with Nick Faldo and Els.
And yes, he believes the links course has something to do with that.
“It’s just a wonderful design,” Els said. “The par 3s are unbelievable. The par 5s have been changed a little bit — they’re longer. Each and every hole is a little bit different. There’s left-to-right, right-to-left, and it all happens out there. Every links shot that you can imagine, you’re going to play it this week.”
The claret jug is the oldest trophy in golf, first awarded in 1873. Els took it around the world over the last year, as he did after winning in 2002. The jug stayed outside London the last two weeks, cleaned and buffed so it was shiny when he handed it back to the R&A.