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 backseat 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.
There is nothing like links golf, with its humps and mounds along the fairways, a landscape framed by tall grass and dotted with pot bunkers. It can be played in the air when the grass is green during wet summers, or played on the ground when the course is crusty and yellow, which is the case this year at Muirfield.
Els remembers his first experience with links golf, and he loved it right away.
“The sound is different. The divot into the fairways are different. The whole experience is different than anything else around the world,” Els said. “So it’s something you’re either going to really like or you’re not going to like. I was fortunate enough that I really fell in love with it.”
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 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 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.”
Els returned to Muirfield a few weeks ago, and he played a quiet nine holes Sunday evening. He remembers much about Muirfield, a course where he tied for fifth in his professional debut in 1992 and won a decade later. And there are some shots he is trying to forget, such as the double bogey on the 16th hole that nearly cost him a chance at having his name on that claret jug.
Els had to make birdie on the par-5 17th and close with a par just to get into a four-man playoff over four holes, and he won in the first sudden-death moment in Open history over Thomas Levet on the fifth hole. Even then, Els hit into a bunker on the 18th and had to save par for the win.
He 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.