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.”
A long shot?
Maybe someone like Jordan Spieth, the 19-year-old Texan who was headed toward another top finish on the PGA Tour until he holed a bunker shot for birdie on the last hole at the John Deere Classic, got into a playoff when Zach Johnson made bogey on the 18th, and won on the fifth extra hole. Next thing he knew, Spieth was on a charter flight to Scotland for his first British Open. He has experience with links golf, having played the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen in 2011.
And for those who believe experience is required, Ben Curtis won in 2003 in his first major championship, let alone his first time playing links golf. Curtis reunited this week with Andy Sutton, the local caddie he hired at Royal St. George’s. Sutton was told of an American player looking for a caddie 10 years ago and had never heard of Curtis. Not to worry. A lot of Americans had never heard of him, either.
Tiger Woods is always a favorite, and he has the best odds this week, even though he hasn’t won the claret jug since Hoylake in 2006.
Els certainly is not ruling himself out this week, not after the victory in Germany and his tie for fourth in the U.S. Open. Els might not win as much as he used to, but he plays the hard courses well. And with a forecast for dry weather and strong wind, this might be hard.
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.