Scott Heppell Associated Press With tall grass behind him, Lee Westwood watches a shot during a practice round Monday at Muirfield, also known for its fairway mounds and humps and pot bunkers.

Links course won't be easy for Big Easy

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 7:08 am

GULLANE, Scotland – Two dozen cameras were in position Monday morning to capture the first big moment of this British Open, but they weren't 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 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 history is against him. The last major champion in his 40s to retain 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 Els 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 benefited from a shocking collapse by Adam Scott, who bogeyed his last four holes to finish one shot behind.

Back to the wager. Els 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."

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 on the ground when the course is crusty and yellow, which is the case this year.

Els remembers his first experience with links golf, and he loved it right away.

"The sound is different. The divots 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 holed a bunker shot for a birdie on the last hole at the John Deere Classic and won on the fifth extra hole Sunday.

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.

Els is well aware of the quality of champions Muirfield produces, from Harry Vardon and James Braid to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.

And yes, Els believes the course has something to do with that.

"It's just a wonderful design," Els said. "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."

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