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.