For Ricky Elliott, 2018 ended much as it began: going downhill fast.
In December, that meant a maiden ski trip to Colorado. January hadn’t been as much fun for Elliott, the longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka. Just a few holes into the year in Hawaii, a wrist injury benched his man for three months.
“It was worrying. I honestly thought if we could play at all this year it would be a bonus,” Elliott said. “It was one of those dark areas where there was no timetable on his comeback. It was a long period of not knowing if you’re going to have a job. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.”
What transpired between Hawaii and Colorado was, of course, a career season for Koepka: a successful U.S. Open defense, victory at the PGA Championship and ascending to World No. 1. When the pair finished their last tournament of 2018 in Shanghai, Elliott said, they shared a quiet moment, just shaking their heads in disbelief.
“I don’t think it’s really hit him yet – or me – what he’s accomplished this year after such a dire start,” he said.
One moment stood out for Elliott as emblematic of the Koepka motif, that ability to summon brilliance while exhibiting the unflappable calm of a stoned frat boy.
It was on the 16th tee at Bellerive in the final round of the PGA Championship. Koepka had a one-stroke lead over his idol, Adam Scott, and Tiger Woods was charging.
“The pin was back right and there was trouble long left and right,” Elliott recalled. “The bulk of the green was 15 (yards) on and we’d said all week if we pitch it 15 on we’re great. We’ll take our 3 and get out of here.”
It was 220 yards to the middle of the green. Elliott told his man to hit a 5-iron.
“How far is it to the pin?” Koepka asked.
“Two-thirty-four,” the bagman replied, warily.
“I can’t get a 5-iron there,” Koepka pressed.
“I know you can’t!” Elliott said. “We’re pitching it where we said we were going to pitch it all week.”
Koepka insisted he felt confident.
“He pulls the 4-iron, sticks the tee in the ground and hits the best shot I’ve ever seen to about six feet. Holes it, two-shot lead,” Elliott said, still awestruck. “He loves the pressure of it. In smaller events he does get a little bit flustered, but in majors he’s unbelievably focused. And as the pressure goes up, the more even-keeled he gets. It’s completely the opposite of what everyone else does.”
In October, Elliott got his first taste of tournament pressure since his days playing the mini tours when Koepka brought him as a playing partner to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in St. Andrews.
“I wasn’t great,” Elliott said with a laugh. “I was just trying to keep it straight.”
He didn’t even own a set of clubs when he flew to Scotland. His sticks had been stolen earlier this year, and on the rare occasion he played it was at Lake Nona in Orlando, where he’d play out of the bag of his childhood pal Graeme McDowell. Lake Nona is also where Elliott once gave lessons at $60 an hour. Caddying pays better.
As he sees off a banner year that began in despair, Elliott confessed that his mind has already wandered to next year’s British Open, which will be played at Royal Portrush, the course where Elliott grew up (and posted a couple of 64s in his youth). A win there by Koepka, Elliott promises, would usher in the mother of all celebrations.
“If he somehow pops off the British Open at Portrush,” he said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to work for the rest of the year.”
Golfweek, December 2018.