Ernie Els returns Claret Jug

GULLANE, Scotland -- As is custom, Ernie Els had an appointment Monday morning with the head of the R&A, Peter Dawson, to give back the Claret Jug he's been in possession of for the past year.

Els, the defending champion of the Open Championship, gave back the famed trophy that has been going to the winner since 1873.

"It went all around the world, just about in every part of the world except maybe South America," said Els, 43, a four-time major champion who recently won a European Tour event in Germany. "Taken some great photographs with it with fans and friends and families. And I think that's the great bit that comes with it. Winning this championship you can have the actual trophy and keep it for a year. It was a wonderful time."

Els is a sort of double defending champion this week. Not only did he win last year's Open at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's but he also captured the last Open played at Muirfield in 2002. Then, at age 32, he overcame a tough finish and defeated Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby in a four-hole aggregate playoff that went to an extra hole against Levet.

Although there were plenty of tour victories between his third and fourth major, there were also numerous squandered opportunities and poor play in the majors. Els contended at all four major championships without winning in 2004, and he battled putting woes in recent years.

"It's been quite a ride,'' Els said. I'm very proud of the way we've kind of stuck with it. And having it really your way for a good five to 10 years, and then really having to work hard for it … it feels very special to have won it the way we did."

Els begins play Thursday morning with U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker.

"I really can't wait for Thursday to come,'' said Els, who played several practice rounds at Muirfield before missing the cut last week at the Scottish Open. "I really have a good feel about it. Since I've played my first practice round two weeks ago to last night, it's amazing how the course has changed. The weather has been unbelievable. The course is getting firm and faster.

"So you have to keep your thumb on things. Things are changing quite rapidly out on the course every day with the weather.''