How does a guy from the Causeway Coast, his own dreams of being a tour player squashed, end up on the bag of a US Open champion? Fate, perhaps. Or maybe just a little bit of luck.
For Ricky Elliott – a former Irish Boys’ champion, back in 1994, who graduated from the University of Toledo and subsequently embarked on a playing career that mainly involved competing on mini-tours – the move into caddying was unintentional.
As a teaching assistant professional at Lake Nona in Florida, where the summers are hot and work dries up, Elliott was asked by his friend Maarten Lafeber if he’d like to work his bag for a few weeks on the European Tour. He was hooked.
The Northern Irishman then carried former British Open champion Ben Curtis’s bag for three seasons, before he got the bag of Brooks Koepka. That was at the 2013 US PGA at Oak Hill, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I tried the teaching thing. I tried playing. I tried every other aspect to golf but I really loved the competitive side and the gamble of going out there and playing. If you miss the cut you go home, I love the competition of golf and if you can’t do it yourself, this is the next best thing. So it is nice to be in the fortunate position to caddy for somebody who is so good and I have enjoyed every minute of it,” said Elliott.
Let’s rewind just a little, though. As he stood outside the recorder’s hut at Erin Hills on Sunday evening, a can of Diet Coke in his hand, Elliott – who’d been probably the calmest man on the course during the final round of the 117th US Open – recalled how Claude Harmon, Koepka’s swing coach, had first asked him if he would like to caddy for “a young American guy” at that PGA four years ago. Koepka’s regular caddie, it seemed, was unable to travel to the United States.
“The first practice we played I just thought, ‘this guy is the real deal, he is hitting the ball unbelievable’. Since that point he hasn’t won as much as he should have on paper. He has always had the talent to pull off something like this.”
“I sucked as a pro and it was the next best thing to go caddying. I played a couple of years on the mini-tours and I realised how tough it was. I grew up with G Mac and I saw what he was doing. I mean, these guys are so good I am glad I gave it up . . .I ended up getting Brooks’ bag four years ago and it is just a dream job really,” said Elliott.
From the first time that he worked with Koepka, who, unusually for an American had chosen to play in Europe – firstly on the Challenge Tour and then on the PGA European Tour itself – Elliott was aware of potentially how good his new man could and would be. But it was at last year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine that Koepka, a regular practice round partner of world number one Dustin Johnson, that the new US Open champion fully realised his own potential.
As Eliott explained: “It was the first time I really seen him totally animated and he was punching the air. He’s so chilled out all the time that playing with Sneds (Brandt Snedeker) and other lads that won Majors, he’s like, ‘right this is the way you’re meant to actually act, you’re meant to get excited about this game’. And he has really dedicated himself over the last four or five months and, between Claude [Harmon] and myself and a few others, we have worked with him to try and realise his potential, just to be patient, patient, patient. He wouldn’t be the most patient fellow, like a lot of the golfers, but he has done it.”
For sure, Koepka did do it; and in some style too. His closing round 67 for a 16-under-par total of 272 – for a four-stroke winning margin over Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman – matched the record low score to par of Rory McIlroy’s win in the 2011 US Open at Congressional.
Prior to his final round, Koepka got a phone call from Johnson, his predecessor as champion, reaffirming what those in his camp had also been telling him. “Just stay patient, just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to win the thing and don’t get ahead of yourself,” was the message from his friend and frequent practice partner.
The message, along with those from his coaches Harmon and Pete Cowan, got through.
“I felt like that has been the thing lately with me, why I haven’t really played that well, I’ve been trying to win so badly. I felt like I’ve underachieved. And the more patient that I can become, the more times I’ll put myself in this situation,” said the 27-year-old Koepka, who became the seventh consecutive first-time winner of a Major, a sequence which started with Jason Day’s win in the 2015 US PGA championship.
After a poor start to the season, which saw Koepka miss four cuts in his first eight starts, he rededicated himself.
“I’ve worked my tail off over the last six months, made some changes, from grinding every day in the gym, trying to make sure that I was physically ready and strong enough to be able to swing the club the way I wanted to. During that struggle the beginning part of the year, I never quit. I mean, I was grinding all day, every day is what it felt like.”
In the final round, Kopeka pulled away from the field with a run of three successive birdies from the 14th. But it was a par-saving putt on 13 that was the catalyst.
“I felt like the hole was in kind of a little swale where I think I played it just outside the cup. And it was one of those little things where I hit it just high, a little bit outside, it would seem like it was going to come back into the hole. It was kind of in a little funnel, where if I played it a little straight it might hang straight. I needed to make that if I was going to win this golf tournament,” he admitted.
And win he did, banking $2.16 million for his troubles . . . and a nice little 10 per cent pay day for his caddie.