A European in the U.S. Ryder Cup team room? That would be Brooks Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott
SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – There’s a Northern Irishman who’s been in and out of the U.S. team room at the last two Ryder Cups, and he’s not David Feherty, and he’s not a spy.
Ricky Elliott, the pride of Portrush and caddie for three-time major champion Brooks Koepka, is one of the few folks in France this week who can say with conviction that he has rooted hard for not one, but both teams in the biennial Ryder Cup matches.
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“Obviously, I’m European and have been watching golf since I was knee-high,” said Elliott, who, at 40, is enjoying the best season of his decade-long career as a caddie. “My heroes were (Nick) Faldo, Woosie (Ian Woosnam) and (Seve) Ballesteros. Up until 2016, I suppose, I was a European hoping that Europe would do well. But now, obviously, you’re part of the American team. I know the American guys very well … So if you can switch teams, I’ve switched.”
His reference to 2016 was his first Ryder Cup alongside Koepka, who would go 3-0-1 in his debut.
“Ricky is honestly one of my best friends. I love the guy to death. He’s an incredible caddie.” — Brooks Koepka
This has been a magical season for Koepka, capping an incredible 15-month run for him and Elliott, who has been on Koepka’s bag since the 2013 PGA Championship. (That’s also the week the two first met.) For both, this truly has been the tale of two seasons. Early on, Koepka missed four months with a serious wrist injury. Having seen him competing in so much pain at Kapalua to start 2018, Elliott didn’t think that Koepka would play any golf at all this season.
Here it is, late September, and not only is Koepka about to compete in his second Ryder Cup, but he won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and is a virtual lock for PGA Tour Player of the Year. He has climbed to No. 3 in the world.
“It’s been a really, really weird year,” Elliott said. “This year has really turned around.”
He could see that Koepka was struggling with his usually premier ball-striking in December, in the Bahamas, at Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge. A month later at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui, Koepka’s left wrist had regressed so badly that Elliott begged him to not even play the tournament’s final two rounds. Koepka did, then got his wrist checked out when he got home. He had partially torn a tendon. The ligaments that usually hold that tendon in place were gone. He wore a soft cast for two months and was away from the Tour for 91 days. It felt like six months, he said. Part of his treatment included taking bone marrow from his hip and injecting it into the wrist. The Masters came and went without him.
“I was sitting around for those three months waiting for the phone to ring, to hear him say, ‘I’ve got good news,’ and it didn’t come,” Elliott said. “For him to come back and win the U.S. Open, win the PGA … I didn’t know that was going to happen. I honestly thought he was out for the year.”
With Elliott at his side, Koepka captured the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, becoming the first U.S. player to win his national championship back-to-back since Curtis Strange (1988-89). Through 25 holes of the championship, Koepka stood at 7 over. He wasn’t thinking about winning; shoot, he knew he had to grind just to make the cut.
“He told me get it going, get it back,” Koepka said of Elliott’s advice. “We’re not out of this thing. He was right. And just keep plugging away. There’s a lot of golf left. You never know what the conditions are going to do. I think he told me it was going to get easier, so just hang in there, and it did on Friday.”
Koepka made six birdies over his final 11 holes in that second round to shoot 66. When he posted 72-68 on a brutal course over the weekend to finish 72 holes at 1 over, he’d seized his second U.S. Open title. He won the PGA Championship in completely different style, prevailing in a shootout. Given the difficulty of Shinnecock and the test it presented, Elliott gives that trophy the nod as being the more impressive performance.
“I still think that four months off for him is going to be huge in his career,” Elliott said. “I think it brought him around to thinking that this game, you can’t really take it for granted. I think he played the U.S. Open with a different mindset. It was very, very tough. You could see other players getting frustrated, and Brooks didn’t. It was the perfect timing to play well.”
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Two months later at the PGA, Koepka outdueled the hard-charging Tiger Woods, one of his boyhood heroes, at Bellerive to win again. This time, Koepka shot 16-under 264, and Woods waited to congratulate him afterward. At 28, Koepka is now a three-time major champion challenging to be No. 1 in the world. And Elliott counts himself a lucky man.
After he’d played four years at the University of Toledo, Elliott tried the mini-tours of Florida and then started working out of the pro shop at Lake Nona, giving lessons. That’s when, by chance, he received his first opportunity to caddie. Lake Nona professional Gregor Jamieson was teaching a Dutch player named Maarten Lafeber, who needed a caddie to work three or four events in Europe. Summertime at Lake Nona is rather slow; Elliott told Lafeber he’d give it a go. He enjoyed it so much that he stayed on for a year.
“I only had to see him hit two shots to realize that this guy is something special.” — Caddie Ricky Elliott on Brooks Koepka
In 2010, Elliott started working for 2003 Open Championship winner Ben Curtis, who also played out of Lake Nona. He was on the bag in 2012 when Curtis won the Texas Open. But his big break would come later the next year. Elliott received a call from South Florida instructor Claude Harmon III, Butch’s son, who was teaching a young and promising American from Palm Beach graduating off the European Challenge Tour. He needed an experienced caddie. Harmon asked Elliott, Can you come out and caddie a couple of weeks for him? So Elliott showed up on the range at Oak Hill.
“I only had to see him hit two shots to realize that this guy is something special,” Elliott said.
Koepka can cut an intimidating figure. His sleeves hardly contain the big guns, fruits of a dedicated workout regimen, and he looks more like an NFL linebacker than your typical world-class golfer. Don’t let the exterior fool you, Elliott says. “Anybody who knows Brooks,” he said, “knows what a nice lad he is. His closest mates really love being around him.”
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As does Elliott, who has forged not just a working relationship with Koepka, but truly has become one of his closest pals.
“Ricky,” Koepka said this summer, “is honestly one of my best friends. I love the guy to death. He’s an incredible caddie.”
The two haven’t stoped running since winning the PGA, moving directly into the four-tournament FedEx Cup and then on to this week in Paris. How will the two celebrate such an incredible season? Weeks back, Koepka told Elliott that he is going to play in next week’s Dunhill Links in Scotland. He wanted Elliott to be there, too – not on his bag, but as his partner. They’ll employ two friends as caddies.
That bit of news left Elliott scrambling a bit at last week’s Tour Championship. He departed one day with a Cobra carry bag with a few new wedges stuffed inside. Will he be ready for some of Scotland’s best links?
“I’m not playing at all,” Elliott said. “I’m probably a 6-handicap. My clubs were stolen about a year ago, and I haven’t gotten them replaced. I might go out and play Lake Nona when I’m home, maybe play with G-Mac (McDowell) or something, so I’d just borrow his clubs. I have no idea how I’m going to play.”
He laughs. “At least I have a good partner.”
First, though, the Ryder Cup beckons. Elliott doesn’t feel awkward in the least pulling for the American team this week because, well, he now is one. About five years ago, Elliott was in a room with about 60 other U.S. hopefuls and passed a test at city hall in Orlando to become a U.S. citizen. The graceful, melodic lilt of the his Northern Irish roots has not left him, and never will, but becoming a U.S. citizen is something that fills him with pride.
“It’s the greatest country in the world, so to get a chance to become a citizen, it’s a real honor,” he said. “I was on my own that day, but you could see how important it was to everyone else in there. It was a cool day.”
Elliott has a few more cool days ahead of him at this week’s Ryder Cup, an event so special he has a difficult time finding the right words to describe it.
For Elliott, who was talented enough as a junior to win the Irish Under 16 Boys Championship in 1993, the Ulster Boys Championship two years later and earn a scholarship to play college golf in the United States, being inside the ropes at one of sports’ greatest events is the next best thing to hitting the shots.
For him, actually hitting those shots will have to wait a week.