By Tony Jimenez
GULLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - Title holder Ernie Els believes Muirfield, the venue for this week's 142nd British Open, is the finest links course on the championship rota.
The globetrotting South African is not only the defending champion, having won the coveted Claret Jug at Royal Lytham 12 months ago, he also won the season's third major when it was last played at Muirfield 11 years ago.
"This course is right at the top of the list for me, right at number one," the 43-year-old Els told reporters on Monday.
"It looks very similar to 2002. It's a little firmer...but it's a great course. It's a wonderful design and the par-threes are unbelievable.
"The par-fives have been changed a little bit, they are longer, but each and every hole is different. Every links shot you could imagine, you are going to have to play it this week."
Els's assertion that the 7,192-yard, par-71 layout is the best on the rota is backed up by the former greats who have triumphed at Muirfield.
The list reads like a golfing 'Who's Who' and contains Harry Vardon (1896), James Braid (1901 and 1906), Ted Ray (1912), Walter Hagen (1929), Henry Cotton (1948), Gary Player (1959), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Lee Trevino (1972), Tom Watson (1980) and Nick Faldo (1987 and 1992).
"I'm fortunate enough to be in that group of players," said four-times major champion Els. "There are some marquee names who have won here.
"I really can't wait for it to start on Thursday, I really have a good feel about it. The weather here has been unbelievably good recently and the course is getting firmer and faster.
"Accuracy is going to be at a premium and your shot-making is going to be really tested. You're going to have to come in to the green high sometimes and you're going to have to come in with bump and runs so your short game will be tested."
Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 before landing his first British Open crown in 2002.
Last year's victory at Lytham was especially sweet as it came after a 10-year wait to land one of golf's four majors.
"It's an amazing feeling," said Els. "It's just something you almost cannot describe.
"You know you've done something really special and you've joined a special club of players. For a long time you ride on that wave."
Els, who had a reputation as a hard drinker in his early days as a professional, took the Claret Jug with him on his travels after the victory at Lytham but the trophy was filled with something rather different this time.
"The jug went round the world in 2002 and it did a very similar thing in 2012," he explained. "There were some very similar travels but a lot different...how do I want to say?... there was juice drunk out of it this time.
"It went to just about every part of the world except maybe South America. I took some great photographs with it with fans and friends and family.
"That's the great bit that comes with it. Winning this championship, you can have the actual trophy and keep it for a year so it was a wonderful time."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)