LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- The silver chalice adorned with all the greatest names in golf is more than just a trophy. It has been a collection area for a bevy of liquid concoctions, a centerpiece for wild celebrations, a symbol of greatness that has traveled the world.
Known as the Claret Jug, its official name is the Golf Champion Trophy, given each year to the winner of the Open Championship, golf's oldest tournament.
When reigning champion Darren Clarke returns the jug at Royal Lytham & St. Annes after keeping it for the past year, administrators undoubtedly will check for dents and germs, dings and dirt. Clarke has made no secret of his affinity for fun, and the Claret Jug has endured some long nights and early mornings on his watch.
But that is nothing new. All manner of Champion Golfers of the Year have done their own thing with the Claret Jug, taking it on vacations, showing it off at golf clubs, passing it around among family members, posing with it for photographs and, of course, drinking every liquid imaginable from it.
"I have many stories about the Claret Jug,'' said Padraig Harrington, who won the 2007 and 2008 Opens and thus got to keep the trophy for two years. "The first drink was John Smith's Smooth Bitter because it was a bet with my manager.
"I woke up in the middle of the night when the Claret Jug was at the end of the bed sitting on a footstool, and I had to wake up my wife [Caroline] and tell her: 'Look, it's real. I did win the Open Championship.'"
The Open began in 1860, but competitors at Prestwick played for the Challenge Belt, made of red morocco leather. The winner was permitted to keep the belt for a year, with a stipulation that anyone claiming the title three years in a row could keep it. Seeing as it was probably worth more than the prize money, that seemed to be a worthy goal. Sure enough, the game's first great star, Tom Morris Jr., won the Open in 1868, 1869 and 1870, thus retiring the belt.
But this created a problem. Organizers of the tournament couldn't come up with a suitable replacement for the belt and, as a result, did not even stage the Open in 1871. The tournament returned in 1872, but the Claret Jug was decided on as the trophy just days earlier, meaning Morris received only a medal and 8 pounds (about $1,000 today) for first prize when he won the tournament again. It wasn't until 1873 at St. Andrews that the Claret Jug was first presented, to winner Tom Kidd.
Again, the winner would get to keep the Claret Jug for a year, although there was no longer a provision for keeping it if a player won three in a row. Winners would get the trophy, then return it the following year. This tradition continued all the way through 1926, when the Open was first played at Royal Lytham.
Bobby Jones won the title and would be the last player to keep the real Claret Jug for a year.
By this point, the R&A had come to realize that the Claret Jug was quite valuable and that keeping it on display in the R&A clubhouse in St. Andrews was more prudent. (It remains on display there, along with the Amateur Trophy and the original belt, returned by Morris' family in 1908.) A replica was commissioned to give to the winner each year, and that is now the trophy that changes hands, with names engraved just as on the original.
"I think the Claret Jug is better than having that belt; that was more like WWF,'' joked three-time champion Tiger Woods. "The Claret Jug is pretty cool. It's pretty neat if you look back over time and you see the photos of the guys with it. How they keep adding to the base [to fit all the names]. To me, that's pretty neat. To be part of that history is something no one can ever take away.''
The trophy must endure the trauma of celebration. Stewart Cink, who won the Claret Jug after a four-hole aggregate playoff against five-time Open champion Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009, gave the jug a great profile after his victory.
With Cink, the symbol of greatness was seemingly all over the place and filled with just about, well, everything.
"The first thing that went in it I reserved the right to put in Guinness,'' Cink said. "That's my beer of choice. The kids drank Coca-Cola out of it. We had some wine in it. We basted some barbecue with it.
"A lot of people think I did more with it than anyone else that's ever had it, but I think through Twitter, that publicized a lot of it. People read along and read what we were doing with it. I just enjoyed having it. I realize now how much attention it draws everywhere around the world. We definitely put it to good use, and it was an honor to be in possession of it.''
Over the years, of course, there have been stories. Lots of stories.
The trophy that is in Clarke's possession for a few more moments is the same one held for the first time by Walter Hagen in 1928.
Watson, somehow, was given the original Claret Jug -- not the replica that his fellow champions drink from each year -- after his 1982 victory. It was obviously a mistake, one seemingly made worse when Watson accidently knocked it from a table in his home while practicing his golf swing, causing a major dent in the trophy.
Many times, Watson has told the tale of how he elected to handle the problem himself, by taking it to his basement workshop and putting the Claret Jug in a vise, then bending it back. "No one knew the difference,'' he said.
Greg Norman drank champagne from the jug along the 18th hole late at night after his 1986 victory at Turnberry. Nick Faldo, who won the Open three times, once told the BBC that he slept with it. "When you wake up in the morning, you can put your hand out in the dark and say, 'Bloody hell, it's the Claret Jug.'"
Tom Lehman, the 1996 champ, got a call from the Minneapolis police in the wee hours one morning when they thought his Claret Jug had been stolen. Turns out, he had been at a charity dinner with the jug and forgot about it; the trophy found its way to family friend Alissa Herron -- sister of PGA Tour player Tim Herron -- who innocently (or she thought) took to it to a local bar with friends.
Once it was determined that Ms. Herron was, indeed, not stealing the trophy and everything was fine, the police mugged for photos with the Claret Jug.
Such tales are numerous. Harrington enjoys telling several, including the one where he put ladybugs in the jug at the request of his son. Or the ride he took it on in a San Francisco cab.
"At the end of the night, I was going back to my hotel and I had the Claret Jug in a steel box in a carrying case,'' the Irishman said. "Unbeknownst to me, there was obviously some whiskey left in it when I packed it up; so the whiskey was dripping out of the corner of the box into the taxi.
"So I was trying to get out of the taxi as quick as I can, because obviously there was a bit of a smell of whiskey, and the driver he had a golf glove on. So I started talking about golfing, the kingdom and getting quite deep into golf, but he had no idea that the Claret Jug was behind him. A couple of times he kept questioning, 'Well, what's in your box?'
"One of my friends and me were kind of saying that it was an organ, because obviously there was sort of a reddish liquid or brownish liquid coming out being whiskey. But the man never actually found out that the Claret Jug was in it.
"Now if he had found out, I don't think he would have been able to drive because he was that much into his golf. So I've told the story a few times, so hopefully he'll read the story and he'll go, 'That's what was in the box.' I didn't take it out purely because, as I said, I was trying not to make a mess.''
Louis Oosthuizen took the jug to the Jigger Inn, a pub right beside the Old Course at St. Andrews, within hours of his victory in 2010. Last year, Clarke famously never went to sleep the night after his win, the jug joining him at a nearby celebration that continued into the morning and stopped only 30 minutes before the winner was due back at Royal St. George's for a day-after news conference.
Woods said his celebrating with the jug was limited to drinks and photos.
"I didn't take it anywhere,'' he said. "I just thought you have to be respectful of it. That is our oldest championship. I certainly enjoyed my libations of choice. But that's the extent of it. I never took it any further than that. It never left the house. It stayed at home, all three times. For basically three full years it never left the house.
"I just think that's not something you take around town. Old Tom Morris and those guys are on it. You just don't do that. I just felt that you have to be respectful of it because of the list of champions, the history of the game. I thought that was the right thing to do. People came over and took pictures of it, we drank out of it, do whatever they want. I just thought it was being safe to keep at home.''
Two weeks after winning the Open last year, Clarke was on his way to the Irish Open when police pulled him over -- the Claret Jug along for the ride. Whether the trophy got him out of a speeding ticket is up for debate.
"The police got their photograph taken with it, and they were very kind to tell me to slow down and carry on,'' he said.
Surprisingly, Clarke didn't consume any beverages from the jug.
"To be 100 percent honest, no, I have not put one drop of anything in it, not one drop -- it is the Claret Jug,'' he said. "I just don't think that would be right. I have too much respect for it. Have I polished it? Yes, I think I have a couple of times. It gets a little bit grubby when people handle it, so yes.
"One of the highlights of being Open champion has been taking it different places and countries around the world where it has maybe never been before. People have seen it who would never have seen it. The likes of Korea and at Coolum in Australia at the end of last year.''
As is protocol, Clarke is expected to return the trophy to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson on Monday morning.
Come the following Sunday, the jug will be in a trailer beside the 18th green, engraved immediately so it can be presented to the winner with his name on it. Undoubtedly the Champion Golfer of the Year will kiss the trophy, hoist it for photographers, show it all around, perhaps take it to a celebratory dinner.
Then another yearlong odyssey with the Claret Jug will commence again.