Ricky Elliott remembers ‘crazy’ year on Brooks Koepka’s bag, including a win at the PGA and a memorable major at home in Portrush
Veteran caddie Ricky Elliott had a spectacular season in 2018-2019.
His player Brooks Koepka delivered an all-world season, particularly in the four majors where he finished fourth or better in all four including a win at May’s PGA Championship.
“My year as a caddie was crazy, just how well Brooks played in the majors. The Masters is always special and the fact that Brooks hadn’t played in it the year before and going back to the Masters with Brooks as a major champion was great,” Elliott said. “Then, obviously, the PGA he was defending and then the U.S. Open at Pebble he was defending and then the last major it was at my home course (Portrush).”
When does that ever happen in golf? Like never.
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“It was a pretty big year in the majors for both Graeme, Brooks, and myself.”
Elliott and his buddy, Graeme McDowell, used to work as starters/cashiers at Portrush’s par-3 course Rathmore, earning a pound an hour. This was back in the early 1990s when Elliott and McDowell were in their teens. One would take the morning shift and open the course, renting clubs and “trolleys” or carts to customers, while the other would close the shop in the afternoons.
They also did a fair bit of caddying on the side to pay for their own clubs and golf balls.
McDowell and Elliott were among a group of 15 teens who would play together and compete in local tournaments regularly. This group also included five-time European Tour winner, Michael Hoey.
Elliott, a talented player in his own right, went on to win local amateur events like the Ulster Boys Championship and the Ulster Youth Championship.
Now 42, the Portursh native remembers a much different Royal Portrush during that time compared to this year at The Open.
“It’s very different now,” Elliott said. “In those days there was still a little bit of the troubles (political violence) around. People were a little scared to come to Northern Ireland, so back in those days the club was quite quiet. There wasn’t the same volume of visitors (as today).”
Back then it wasn’t even a dream for Elliot to entertain that The Open could come back to Portrush for the first time since 1951. But it happened this July, and Elliott feels fortunate to have been a part of it.
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“Even to say that I would be caddying in The Open whenever it came to Portrush would be amazing, never mind off the back of what Brooks did coming in and that he was probably the favorite to win it,” Elliott said.
How could he not be the favorite as world No. 1, coming off top 2s at the first three majors and having Elliott’s local knowledge on the bag for a course he’d played countless times?
Koepka ended up in the mix with an outside chance to win entering Sunday — no small feat — before ending up tied for fourth.
From an emotional perspective Elliott felt goosebumps beginning when he first saw the massive blue R&A grandstands on his course.
The week began with Koepka in a late first-round tee time, so that gave Elliott time to get up at dawn and watch his fellow countryman Darren Clarke hit the first shot of the championship at 6:30 a.m.
“It was just pretty emotional for us people from Portrush, it was really surreal to see Darren tee it up in the Open at Portrush, and he had a massive part of getting it there. As did Graeme and Rory.”
McDowell wasn’t qualified for The Open at his childhood course for the longest time, not until less than 40 days from the first round, when he got through via his tie for eighth at the RBC Canadian Open.
Elliott wanted badly for his good friend to qualify. So much so that when they practiced together at home in Florida three times earlier in the year, Elliott inquired once to McDowell to see if the R&A would just give him an exemption. When GMac said they wouldn’t, Elliott avoided the subject completely from then on so as not to upset his pal.
But once McDowell buried that 30-foot bomb on the 72nd hole at Glen Abbey everything changed.
“To see the elation in his face, it was almost like he had won the Canadian Open honestly,” Elliott laughed.
Once The Open week arrived, Elliott was incredibly happy for his friend.
“I can’t imagine what Graeme was thinking, teeing it up in the Open on his home course,” Elliott said. “For me to caddie was amazing, but what was going through his head?”
The other highlights included the walk up the 18th with Brooks as Elliott’s home crowd cheered him on.
“I had a lot of friends around there that were shouting my name, and that’s never really happened in my life at a big tournament, so that was pretty cool,” Elliott said.
If any of us had a major championship coming to our home course, could you imagine the ticket requests we’d get from friends and family?
It was the same for Elliott in the lead up to The Open.
Thankfully, many of the American caddies whose wives and girlfriends weren’t making the trip across the pond were happy to give their tickets to Elliott.
Austin Johnson, Michael Greller, Kessler Karain gladly passed them along.
“It was about 100 pounds a day for tickets, so that was massive that they did that for me, it was really nice of them to help me out,” Elliott said.
Once Brooks was out of contention late Sunday, Elliott could appreciate the week that Shane Lowry was putting together, and felt pride that an Irishman won it.
“It was unbelievable, really. I’ve been friends with Shane for a long time and the way it all played out,” Elliott said, “it was huge for Ireland in general. Shane is just a really nice lad.”
End of the season and NFL interests
Koepka had a tremendous performance in the four majors where he finished one shy of Woods at the Masters, won the PGA, and finished two shy of Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open. The 29-year-old also had a chance to win the season-ending Tour Championship, playing in the final group on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy eventually overtook Koepka for the title and the FedEx Cup, but 2018-19 was just a whisker away from ending with a lights-out Koepka exclamation point.
But McIlroy went on to win the PGA Tour Player of the Year award last week, as voted upon by the players.
Since the season ended in August, Elliott has been globetrotting with the best of them.
He went straight from Atlanta to Dubai for over a week with some friends trying to survive 110-degree days, then spent a few days in Thailand before another week in Portrush where he again stayed with his parents, Pat and Martha. Their house actually backs up to the McDowell home of Graeme’s parents, Kenny and Marian.
It was in his parent’s basement bedroom staying up through the night in 2008 when Elliott became a New York Giants fan as they beat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. He cheers for them during NFL season, watches college football intently, and is still a huge Premiere League soccer fan.
And yes, after an 0-2 start, he too is ready to see Eli Manning replaced at quarterback (and at the time of this post, it was reported just that has happened, as rookie Daniel Jones will be the Giants’ new starting QB).
Thoughts on ESPN Body Issue
It seemed that everyone in golf had an opinion about the ESPN Body Issue shoot Koepka did this summer.
Elliott liked that Koepka didn’t mind showing the sports world that golfers are indeed athletes.
“I know he thought it would be good for golf to show some of the other athletes in the world that golfers are not all beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking athletes anymore and I thought it was ballsy for him to be able to do it honestly,” Elliott said.
PGA Championship defense
One of the season’s biggest highlights was returning to Long Island in May after winning the U.S. Open at Shinnecock last year, and this year Koepka successfully defended his PGA Championship title.
Koepka led by a dominating seven shots through 36 holes, grouped with a Tiger Woods who had just floored the golf world at The Masters only a month before.
None of that affected the unflappable Koepka.
In the end, however, Koepka’s string of four straight bogeys on the back nine became a big part of the Sunday finish, giving Dustin Johnson a chance at winning before Koepka eventually pulled out a two-shot victory.
“In majors it’s never over until it’s over and having a massive lead midway through the second round (we knew) it was always going to be difficult to keep going as anything can happen at anytime,” Elliott said.
Bogeys on holes 11-14 shrunk Koepka’s seemingly unsurmountable lead to one.
“We more or less knew we were going to have a little stretch of holes at some point whether it be in the third round early or back nine on Sunday that was going to be a test, that’s just what majors throw at you,” Elliott said. “They are never easy to win!”
And Elliott said he was nervous as they came down the stretch, but he wanted to steady his player, so he conveyed some positive thoughts to Koepka.
“I just reiterated that he hadn’t done a whole lot wrong, but honestly he was likely calmer than I was,” Elliott said. “I tried to keep telling him we were still in the lead and that’s all we focused on. It was really difficult with the wind, never mind how hard the last few holes are at Bethpage, so we kinda thought 7 or 8 under would still win even after the four bogeys, so that still gives us a nice cushion.”
That cushion ultimately gave Koepka the stage to finish with a 5-footer to win by two.
A fired-up Elliott ran down his player for an emotional embrace on the 18th.
It was major No. four in only a three-year stretch.
Reflecting on the back nine, the shots that impressed Elliott most were Koepka’s booming drive off of 15, which stopped the four straight bogeys when he made par there, and his second shot out of the thick rough on 18 on a side-slope with one foot in the fairway bunker.
“It could have went anywhere, it was in the tall reeds and a downhill lie,” Elliott said, “it was pretty impressive.”
Impressive — a word worthy of their season.