Open kicks off as Ernie Els returns the Claret Jug

Ernie Els returns the Claret Jug to the R&A's Peter Dawson prior to the official start of the 2013 Open Championship.

GULLANE, Scotland –- Presuming that the first bacon bap can be considered a proper starter’s gun, so to speak, let’s say that the 142nd Open Championship is officially under way.

And, hey, how about that weather?

Save those tired, old, cliches about the British summer climate, because it’s been downright balmy and prospects for the coming days are positive thanks to the presence of some high pressure. You want giddy? Here’s giddy: “Dry conditions” and “good deal of sunshine” and “feeling warm or very warm” are included in the daily weather forecast here at Muirfield, but just in case you think this richest of professional golf championships has been relocated to Kapalua, there is this at the bottom of the print-out:

“This forecast may be amended at any time.”

Ah, to cover all of one’s bases. Human nature at its finest.

It is not just the weather that constantly dominates the talk at the Open Championship; so, too, do curiosities and timeless traditions. There was, for instance, the discussion that went on at the end of a Monday morning practice round for Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler.

“The flag fifth from the left, the one closest to the scoreboard,” said Mahan’s caddie, John Wood, pointing toward one of the most noteworthy landmarks at an Open Championship – the massive yellow leaderboard that looms high above the 18th fairway. “What is that flag?”

Suggestions were tossed out – Fiji, perhaps? – when someone in the group noticed that the same flag flew from a flagpole next to the clubhouse. Thus was it determined that it was the club flag of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Yes? No? The talk went on, but by now, there was another Open Championship moment that required attention. The Claret Jug was on its way home.

Having traveled the world in possession of 2012 champion Ernie Els – “I think it went to every corner except South America,” said The Big Easy – the sport’s most prestigious trophy was being returned to the R&A. Keeping to the designated time, 10 a.m., Els was driven to the side of the clubhouse where he was greeted by Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, and a small crowd of photographers, reporters, and curious fans.

Els, a stunning winner at Royal Lytham last July, smiled when asked what sort of shape the “jug” was in.

“(It) has had some time for itself. We left it home in Wentworth (outside of London) for the last two or three weeks. So, it’s been cleaned and buffed and it was very, very shiny when I gave it back to Mr. Dawson.”

A big smile accompanied the answer, for Els confirmed that at 43, he’s settled down from those days when he previously possessed the Claret Jug, back in 2002-03. There was a little less beverage consumed from it this time around.

As Els fielded questions, the thought occurred that he is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is his extended period of excellence. Having won the U.S. Open in 1994 at the age of 24 and his fourth major last summer at 42, Els’ span of 18 years from first to most recent major is impressive. Jack Nicklaus set a standard, of course, his stretch of 24 years (1962-1986) can be considered untouchable, especially when one takes into account that we are still watching to see if the esteemed Tiger Woods (1999-2008) can improve upon his nine-year window.

“Things have worked out pretty well, touch wood,” Els said. “I went through a couple of bubbles (and) I’d like to get more consistent. But I’m glad we’re I’m sitting, defending a major and after being inducted into the (World Golf) Hall of Fame. (I’m) proud of the way I’ve stuck with it.”

While Woods is considered the betting favorite, Els, when pressed by reporters, suggested that he might hand that title to Phil Mickelson “because he won (Sunday).” Indeed, the inimitable lefthander prevailed in a playoff at the Scottish Open, finally winning on links course (Castle Stuart). When told that Mickelson had said something to the effect that it was time to learn how to play links, Els again flashed his trademark smile.

“It’s taken him 22 years, I guess,” said Els.

Not so with The Big Easy. More like it took him 22 seconds to fall for this style of golf. In 1987 he accompanied fellow South African teenagers to the UK for the British Amateur and some other tournaments. “Getting onto links for the first time was just a special feeling,” he said. “I was so excited to play links.”

That love affair has only increased exponentially.

“The sound is different. The divot into the fairways are different. The whole experience is different than anything else around the world. 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.”

Though he missed the cut at the Scottish Open, Els is riding enthusiasm from his win in Germany a few weeks ago and the fact that a firm, fast and fiery Muirfield is to his liking. He seemed to agree that this historic course in Scotland’s southeast coast might indeed be the best in the rota.

“You have to keep your thumb on things,” Els said about a fast-running Muirfield. “It all happens out there.”

As he spoke, the wind began whipping, clouds floated in, and the temperature fell. So much for “feeling warm or very warm.”

Then again, remember, the forecast can be amended at any time.

Just part of the flavor of golf’s grandest championship.

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