Thursday 18 January 2018

Accidental bagman Elliott eyes US Open glory

Brooks Koepka, now 26 and ranked 16th in the world, turned pro in 2012. Photo: Getty
Brooks Koepka, now 26 and ranked 16th in the world, turned pro in 2012. Photo: Getty
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Ricky Elliott grew up playing golf in Portrush with his pal Graeme McDowell. This week, they are both at Oakmont chasing the US Open dream, but from different perspectives.

McDowell, 37 on July 30, is a player, and already has a US Open on his golfing CV. Elliott, 39, a former Irish Boys and Youths champion, caddies for American Brooks Koepka, and he is just as invested, personally and professionally, in the battle for the title as McDowell.

A good golfer, but not quite good enough to make a career on Tour, Elliott fell into the bagman role as much by accident as anything else.

America has been his home since he arrived at Toledo College in Ohio back in 1997 on a golf scholarship. After four years at Toledo, and a spell on mini-Tours, he got a job as an assistant professional with Gregor Jamieson, director of golf at Lake Nona in Florida.

Elliott was asked by a friend to caddie for him, and that led to Dutch golfer Maarten Lafeber, taking him on full time.

He spent two years with Lafeber, six more with 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis, during which Curtis triumphed at the Texas Open in 2012, and got Koepka's bag three years ago.

Reflecting on his life on Tour, Elliott said: "It's the next best thing to playing obviously, and you get a big buzz out of it.

"It's something that you've aspired to do yourself. I'd never have a chance to win the US Open if I was a player, and now you've got the chance to win the US Open as a caddie. I guess that's as close as you can get," he said.

Growing up in Portush, and going to the same school as McDowell, Elliott was passionate about golf - up to a point.

His standard joke is "when I went home for tea, Graeme was still out there practising", but to his credit, when he realised his game would not withstand the rigours of top level professional golf, Elliott embraced the opportunity to caddie with commendable enthusiasm.

Brooks Koepka, now 26 and ranked 16th in the world, turned pro in 2012.

Unusually for an American, he took himself off to Europe's Challenge Tour and paid his dues there with four victories in 2012 en route to gaining his playing rights on the European Tour.

A Turkish Airlines Open victory in 2014 confirmed Koepka's potential, and he has since gone on to win the 2015 Waste Management Open on the PGA Tour.

He came into his fourth US Open - he first played as an amateur in 2012 - on the back of a runner-up spot in the Byron Nelson Classic, where Sergio Garcia defeated him in a play-off, and second place in the FedEx St Jude Classic last Sunday.

This has been a messy few days, with the weather disruptions delaying the Koepka/Elliott combination from hitting a ball in anger until Friday, when they had to play 36 holes.

Koepka shot 75, 69, a gritty display, leaving him on four-over and awaiting the draw for round three.

It was a long wait from the time Elliot and his boss arrived in Pittsburgh from Memphis last Sunday night.

The normal pre-US Open tension built for all the players through Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but the Thursday storms, and uncertainty about getting under way meant the adrenalin had to be put on hold for half the field, including Koepka and Elliott until Friday.

Once the all-clear arrived, it was down to business, and the regular on-course routine.

"You go out and there's only one thing in your mind, and that's getting the ball around in the least number of shots. That's where the caddie comes in. The coaches are outside, the manager's away, and it's just you and him out there again.

"You try and keep it as simple as possible for him. It's a bit of a relief, to be honest, and in a strange way, it seems to get easier from there," said Elliott.

The Northern Irish connections remain strong and Koepka has regular practice rounds with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

"It's just a little family out here and the Irish guys look after Brooks, even though he's an American, although they'll be trying to batter him in the Ryder Cup.

"I don't think Clarkey (Europe's captain Darren Clarke) will speak to me all that week," quipped Elliott.

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