CARMEL, Ind. — Ricky Elliott always hoped he could be in the Ryder Cup, the dream of any aspiring golfer from Portrush in Northern Ireland.
He finally got there as a caddie, which is not unusual.
Except that he’ll be working for the other team.
“I’ll be getting plenty of good needle, but it’s all in good fun,” said Elliott, the caddie for American player Brooks Koepka for the last three years. “Whenever I’m out here, I stay with Kenny (Comboy), Billy (Foster) and all the other European caddies because we have the same things in common. I still am European. When it comes down to the matches, might they be a little wary in the team meeting? You just don’t know. But it’s all about getting the cup back to this side of the pond.
“And I’m working for the American team.”
The Ryder Cup is all about the flag, Europe against the United States, three days of frenetic golf and fanatical cheering.
The PGA of America only began keeping records of Ryder Cup caddies in 1995, and no European caddie worked for the American team in the last two decades. The last European caddie to work for a U.S. player might have been Brian Bellenger of England, who caddied for Bill Rogers in 1981 at The Belfry. Bellenger, who died last year, holds the unique distinction of working on the winning side of both teams. He also worked for Ken Brown when Europe won in 1985.
There are more stories of Europeans who didn’t work.
Terry Holt of England worked for Paul Azinger in 1993, but chose not to go with him to the Ryder Cup at The Belfry. Dave Musgrove of England declined to work for Lee Janzen in 1997 at Valderrama, fearing a conflict in interest. “He didn’t want to be in a bad situation. People might wonder about his loyalties,” Janzen said then.
The most recent example was Andy Sutton, the English caddie whom Ben Curtis hired when he won the British Open at Royal St. George’s. Curtis qualified for the Ryder Cup in 2008 at Valhalla, and Sutton didn’t want to work for him that week.
“We had talked about it in the past and he said, ‘If you ever make the Ryder Cup, I can’t work for you,'” Curtis said. “When it came about, I remember saying to him, ‘Are you serious?’ He said: ‘I can’t. I’ll catch too much grief from the other European caddies.’ He decided it might be better for me to have someone else.”
Curtis hired Tony Navarro for the week. He said years later, Sutton regretted not working for him at the Ryder Cup.
What’s in store for Elliott?
“I have no worries about him,” said John Wood, who caddies for Matt Kuchar and will be working at his sixth Ryder Cup. “There might be some out there I would be concerned about, but not Ricky. I think he’ll jump right into the feel of the team and be part of it. I think it would be difficult if you had somebody who had been on a European Ryder Cup team and then came into the U.S. room. But for Ricky, it will be a fresh experience for him.”
There have been examples of American caddies working for European players in the Ryder Cup — Jerry Higginbotham for Sergio Garcia in 1999, and Lance Ten Broeck for Jesper Parnevik in 1999 and 2002.
“It was kind of weird in the beginning,” Ten Broeck said. “I remember I was kind of concerned about doing it, but the more I spoke to Hal Sutton, he said: ‘Why wouldn’t you do it? That’s who you work for.’ And I spoke to Jesper about it a long time. This is a golf match, not a war. And it’s one of the great experiences.”
Elliott played college golf at Toledo, competing against Curtis at Kent State, and stayed in America. He lives in Florida near Graeme McDowell, one of his best friends from Portrush, and decided last year to become a U.S. citizen.
“I had to say a sentence in English and I had to spell a word, and I just squeaked by that,” Elliott said in his sing-song Irish lilt. “There was about 80 of us in the room and 2,000 people had come to watch. I was there on my own, sitting beside a wee Chinese man waving the flag. It was cool. I’ve spent half my life over here. You’re still always where you’re from, but I’m pleased as punch to be an American citizen.”
Elliott was trying to find a golf pro job during the economic downturn in 2008 when he caddied for Maarten Lafeber on the European Tour, and then Curtis. He was between jobs when Koepka, who began his career on the European Tour, received an exemption to the 2013 PGA Championship and his regular caddie had visa problems.
“First time I ever met him was on the range at the PGA,” Elliott said. “He’s striping these shots and I’m like, ‘Happy days.’ I was still in Europe, but you know what it’s like when you see a good player. He made the cut that week, played with Tiger (Woods) on Sunday and said to me in the locker room, ‘Do you fancy doing a few in Europe?'”
They’ve been together ever since. Koepka won in Turkey in 2014 and won the Phoenix Open the following year. He is No. 22 in the world, playing in his first Ryder Cup. He never thought twice about having anyone but Elliott on his bag.
Elliott never considered sitting out.
The caddie lives at Lake Nona in Orlando, home to some of Europe’s finest in the Ryder Cup over the years — McDowell, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson.
“It will be fun for Ricky,” said Curtis, who used to live at Lake Nona and won his most recent event with Elliott on the bag. “Once you get into it, it’s the same as when you’re playing against one of your good friends in the final round. You want to beat them. And this will be the same thing.”