Brooks Koepka is the last guy who needs help at this week’s British Open, but he’ll be the one receiving the most able assistance. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, is a former standout junior golfer from Northern Ireland and lifelong friends with Graeme McDowell—the two grew up together refining their games on the windswept bully known as Royal Portrush, site of the 148th chug for the Claret Jug.
Having played the course myself prior to the 2006 Ryder Cup, I can attest to the severity of the layout. My 4-handicap was laughed at by the rugged beast, which gobbled up more of my golf balls in one afternoon than Elliott probably lost in the thousand or so rounds he has played there. I’m obviously no tour pro, and neither was Elliott, who won the Ulster Boys Championship and played golf at the University of Toledo, then failed in his attempt to make a living at the game’s highest level.
The little white ball was in his blood, however, so Elliott tried various occupations within the sport before McDowell helped him land a job working for Koepka at the 2013 PGA Championship. The big boy did nothing that week at Oak Hill, but his new caddie was a keeper, and they’ve been together since.
That was six years and four major titles ago. Koepka’s recent dominance comes with historic ramifications, and if ever there was a tournament he’d seem most likely to win, it would be the one played in Northern Ireland this week. Not only did the Floridian begin his professional career by spending four years in Europe, he has a 41-year-old bottle of vintage local knowledge on his bag, a guy who knows every nook and cranny on the grounds and is deftly aware of all the weather-related nuances that can turn links golf into a Rubik’s Cube for the blindfolded.
Not a bad little accessory to have when you’re pursuing your fifth big trophy in 25 months.
“Brooks hits the ball a lot different to me,” Elliott said of the familiar-turf factor. “I’ll have to work on the yardage book a little bit, but obviously, a little local knowledge doesn’t hurt.”
It certainly doesn’t. Koepka hits the ball a lot different to just about anybody, particularly those from this planet, and that is essential in sizing up the relevance of a home-field advantage in professional golf. Situations such as this certainly don’t happen very often. Tiger Woods grew up just outside of Los Angeles, but the PGA Tour stop at Riviera is one of the few at which he has never claimed a victory.
Never mind that Woods moved to Orlando right after he turned pro and won there eight times. Bay Hill is a meat-and-potatoes ballpark not unlike Firestone or Torrey Pines, two other venues where he has picked up eight first-place paychecks. Everybody comes from somewhere, but the tour doesn’t play just anywhere, the point being that a territorial edge comes from a very small sample size and is wholly inconclusive.
In other sports, it’s plainly evident, due largely to the notion that a stadium filled with 60,000 people rooting for you can spur a team to greater heights, or that a little home cooking can have an immeasurable but substantial impact on most any athletic contest. That said, Arnold Palmer lost the 1962 U.S. Open to some fat kid named Jack Nicklaus just outside of Pittsburgh, the birthplace of Arnie’s Army and de facto capital of the world’s most vociferous fans sports.
You’ve still gotta play. You still have to hit good shots and make a few 15-footers, get up and down more often than not and spend every second living in the moment. One might surmise that Elliott is worth two or three strokes to Koepka at Portrush, perhaps several more if Mother Nature hops into the action, but a couple of 74s to begin the week will render his caddie’s wisdom all but irrelevant.
Such a lousy start, of course, is hard to envision. More than perhaps anyone since Woods in his heyday, Koepka transmits a vibe of confidence far above and beyond your standard millionaire tour pro. His last major triumph, two months ago at the PGA, came about mainly because he played the first 36 holes seven strokes better than the four men closest to him.
Koepka still led by a touchdown with nine holes to play, at which point he began impersonating the club championship runner-up. Despite five bogeys on that closing stretch, he never showed a trace of panic or exhibited any body language suggestive of a guy about to lose his mind. When pressure calls, Brooks Koepka doesn’t just let it go to voice mail. He answers the phone, makes a statement and hangs up with a smile.
Elliott is a valuable complement to this competitive bravado. His golfing accomplishments as a teenager allowed him to not only befriend McDowell, but Ian Poulter and several other gents who would go on to more successful playing careers. A professional caddie has to know how to ride his horse, and Elliott took to it naturally because he once subscribed to the same high-performance mentality as those who made it to the big leagues.
From the inability to achieve his boyhood dream, Elliott gleaned a sense of appreciation for what it takes to do what Koepka is doing. “I sucked as a pro and it was the next best thing to become a caddie,” he recently told the Belfast Telegraph. “I played a couple of years on the mini-tours and realized how tough it was. I grew up playing with G-Mac and I saw what he was doing. I mean, these guys are so good, I’m glad I gave it up.”
What makes his boss so unique, of course, is how Koepka plays so well in the biggest tournaments and becomes quite ordinary in the lesser ones. This is known as a good problem to have, and theories abound as to why it occurs. Koepka himself thinks he embraces a more conservative strategy at the majors, waiting for others around him to falter, a formula that simply won’t work at tournaments where 20 under par only gets you in the picture.
Personally, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with the big picture now. And though it’s only a guess, I’m pretty sure Ricky Elliott feels the same way.
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.