2005: Chuggin’ from the Jug

Lemont, Ill.

You walk through the Cog Hill parking lot with Todd Hamilton and, approaching his black courtesy car, you ask if his trunk resembles that of Sign Boy. With one punch of a button, the trunk opens and it’s clear Hamilton is low on junk. In terms of memorabilia and pilfered clutter, Sign Boy beats him, 9 and 8.

Inside there’s a backpack full of pens and paper and CDs. There’s also some rain gear and a scuffed baseball with a dirt spot from the day before, when he one-hopped the ceremonial first pitch at a Cubs game. And there’s a silver box that looks like it might hold camera equipment.

But Hamilton opens the crate, peels off some foam and reveals the jewel that signifies the highlight of his golf career. It was hard to tell what was glowing more in the sunlight, Hamilton or the Claret Jug.

The silver jug, of course, is the oldest, most historic, and perhaps most treasured trophy in golf. It goes to the winner of the British Open for a year, and in 2004 Hamilton became that ancient gathering’s second consecutive surprise winner who had come out of PGA Tour Q-School the previous fall.

So the 132-year-old gem has been in his possession for almost a full calendar now and, on the eve of the Cialis Western Open, it happened to be stuffed in, of all places, a hot trunk.

“Could be a good commercial,” Hamilton said of his trunk.

That’s not the jug’s usual display place, but there was reason for said storage. He was planning to meet a friend who wanted to see the famous hardware. “So,” Hamilton said, “I remembered to throw the jug in the car.”

Lest the Royal & Ancient Golf Club seize on the word “throw” and deduce that Hamilton has been a reckless caretaker, there’s adequate evidence to the contrary. Hamilton actually has been a wonderful steward.

Hard to imagine that anyone has handled the jug any better. No drops. No dings. One of his goals was to “not let it get out of control.” And he lugged that thing around for people everywhere to see, if not drink out of. Hamilton has shared it more than Richard Simmons shares hugs with overweight housewives.

When he played courses around Dallas, he would bring the Claret Jug and let the pro shop staff have fun with it for about five hours. He did that close to a dozen times. That little vase might lead the FBI in fingerprints.

“As soon as you’d walk out of the shop, the assistants would get on the phone and they’d be calling, ‘Hey, bring your camera over, the Claret Jug, the British Open trophy, is here in the shop,’ ” Hamilton said. “And it was funny to walk in after the round and see guys that looked to be in their 70s just studying that thing and talking with their buddies.

“It’s been a great honor to be the Open champion for a year. But to see people that would never get the chance to touch it or study it, to see them actually hold it and see the joy, the smile on their faces, was pretty neat.”

Hamilton uses words like neat. He is a low-key, down-to-earth, polite Midwesterner. He’s far from the flashiest guy on Tour, but he’s one of the most genuine. Ask him a question, you won’t get a loud, reusable sound bite, but you will get a thoughtful response. When Hamilton answers, he loads up on details.

That is especially the case when he speaks of his beloved year with the jug. And about the assorted liquids – most notably the different kinds of champagne and beer – that have been consumed from it.

The first time he used the trophy as a container for adult beverages in public was at a Hooters restaurant near his home in McKinney, Texas. (The R&A might not be familiar with Hooters, but it is well known for its buffalo wings, cleavage and orange hot pants.) As it happened, Hamilton ended up there with friends on his way home from golf.

“Six (p.m.) turned into 7, 7 turned to 8, we had a few beers, 8 was 10,” the 39-year-old Hamilton recalled. “I had the jug out in the car. I had never let anyone drink from it yet. I decided it was time to liven this party up. I went out, got the jug and brought it in. Most of the people in Hooters didn’t know what the Claret Jug was. They probably would have known the NASCAR trophy.”

Nonetheless, those people consumed champagne out of it until 11:30.

Another time, Hamilton was having dinner with a party of 12 when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones walked in. Next thing Hamilton knew, he and the jug and Jones were mugging for a camera.

Sometimes when airport security has asked what the jug is, Hamilton and his caddie have said, “It’s just some antique.”

And the Hope diamond is just another stone.

Hamilton’s 15 minutes of fame have lasted a year. He was honored at halftime of the Oklahoma football opener last fall. He threw out that first pitch at the Cubs game. Some guy recognized him at the urinal in a bar after an OU football game.

Since securing the trophy, Hamilton has had one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour. His best result this year is a tie for 18th. He says he’s recharged again after wearing himself out by playing too much late last year and this spring. He found himself in a rut and taking things too seriously, and decided recently to enjoy golf more. His putting has been off and his game inconsistent to the point that the streaky Hamilton has asked himself, “Why don’t you start playing like the Open champion instead of a first-year player?”

So he goes to St. Andrews trying to repeat. Stranger things have happened. After all, he wasn’t playing that well when he went to Troon last year until he “found something in my swing” that week.

In fact, as Hamilton packed up at the 2004 John Deere Classic before leaving for Scotland, another player surprised him by telling him to win the Open.

“I kind of looked at him and thought, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Hamilton said.

A year later he’s looking for another spark. And he’s looking forward to posing with other past winners at the champions’ dinner. Except for one small detail.

“I’m not looking forward to putting a jacket and tie on,” Hamilton said. “I’m not a big fan of dressing up.”

One last date with that little ornament on his arm, though, might soften the blow.

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