Brooks Koepka is a powerhouse of American golf with four major championships on his mantelpiece, but he cut his teeth as a professional on Europe's second-tier Challenge Tour. Golf Correspondent James Corrigan spoke to those who witnessed a prodigious talent blossom in those formative years.
'All this started with you'
Even if he is not near a TV screen, Mike Thomson knows exactly when Brooks Koepka has triumphed at yet another major. "My phone goes bananas," Thomson says. "My mates and all the other caddies, texting to say 'just look at what you could have won'. Yeah, highly amusing."
Thomson holds a special place in the remarkable story of Koepka, the all-American kid who courageously decided to flee the cosseted country clubs and instead kickstart his career on the barely travelled route through the outposts of the Challenge Tour, the Europe Tour's main feeder league.
In nine weeks, together, Thomson and Koepka won three times, earning the so-called "golden promotion" directly to the Tour proper.
When Koepka hugged Thomson on the 18th green at the Spey Valley at the victorious completion of the Scottish Hydro Challenge, it seemed their relationship was rock solid. Except, the then 29-year-old, labelled "A Superstar in the Making" on the Tour's official website that night, was not only saying goodbye to the minor leagues, but to his bagman as well.
The Northern Irishman Ricky Elliott was given the call and almost six years on, it is estimated that Elliott has earned $2m as a percentage of Koepka's winnings in this time, with four majors and five other titles around the world. There will also be a retainer on top of this.
Thomson has not been so successful. His current player, the Welshman Stuart Manley, earned approximately £130,000 last year and has just topped £90,000 this season and is in a fight to retain his Tour card. With caddies usually picking up 10 percent for a win, seven percent fo a top 10 and five percent for any other result, the numbers are not kind and Thomson has to supplement his income by caddying for tourists at Kingsbarns in his home county of Fife. At 36 he is still waiting to "get over the line" on the European Tour.
"People say it must be a sickener having 'lost' Brooks, particular as you were so successful together, but that's just golf and that is this profession for you - no contracts, you can be fired week by week, even if you have won," he said. "But there are no regrets on my behalf and it's cool to be a part of Brooks's story. He's a great lad. When he won his first major [the 2017 US Open] he sent me a text saying 'all this started with you' and when I run into him we always talk and reminisce about the old days."
Thomson had been a Tour caddy for three years - originally for his compatriot George Murray - when he first got the call. He almost said no. "Sam Haywood [now Danny Willett's caddy] was working for Pete Uilhein, who was the first of these young Americans to come over to the Challenge Tour and he shared a flat in Florida with Brooks," Thomson said.
"Sam asked if I wanted to caddy for Brooks, but although he was this US wonderkid, you've seen it before when they don't amount to much. I had a bag on the main Tour and was reluctant to give it up for the Challenge Tour, where the money is less and you have basically got to fend for yourself with travel and cars and everything. But I spoke to Brooks and he said he was going to play a nine-week run and I thought 'well, if it's nothing else, it's regular work'. It turned out to be rather more than that, although when he missed the cut in our first event together I did think 'here we go'."
Koepka won the very next week, the Montecchia Open presented by Polaroid. In Padova, Italy he provided a snapshot of his future dominance, prevailing by seven shots. Four weeks later he won in Spain by 10 shots and then three weeks on came his graduation in Aviemore.
"Everyone was talking about Brooks, players, officials, referees all coming up to me and asking 'how good is this kid'," Thomson said. "The buzz was all about his length, but to me it was how fearless he was. I remember one par four in Italy when I thought the play off the tee was a lay-up with a four-iron. He whipped out his driver. 'I said, 'what are you doing?'. He said 'that bunker is at 290 [yards] right? That's no problem, I'll carry that easy'. But the fairway narrows into almost nothing after that," I told him. 'But if I'm in the rough I'll only be 40 yards from the green,' he replied. 'Listen, my driver is my biggest advantage and unless it's absolutely brain dead, I'm hitting it regardless'. He completely changed my mindset about golf, if not the whole of the Challenge Tour's in that spell. "
It was a two-way fairway. "We'd go out for dinner together every night and it wasn't the usual caddie 10-pints a-night stuff, as we'd have long chats," Thomson said. "Brooks said he was glad he taken that path as it showed him proper life on the road, going to different cultures, the language problems, different courses, different conditions. He said it would set him up for his career and he was right.
"When the end came, I got a phone call from his manager saying he was going to concentrate on America and that was it. I don't know if it was Brooks' decision or his management's or both. You can't fault him really, as it's worked out ok, hasn't it?"
Oliver Wilson, player
I'd had to go back to the Challenge Tour after losing my Tour card and I didn't expect to find a player who to be frank was completely f-- awesome. I played with him at Saint Omer in France after he had already won twice.
On that course there are a few doglegs right-to-left with out of bounds tight left. Well, I was sending my drives way out right keeping the ball alive and he just stood up and hit these bullet fades towards out of bounds and I was like 'wow'. I'd played in a Ryder Cup and this was different.
It was funny, because I went to college in the US and my results there gave me a few starts on the Challenge Tour and he did the same. It was unusual for a big American, though, but there was no resentment from any of the lads, because he wasn't 'The Big I Am' - just a good guy. If he was a d-- there would have been kickback, but he fitted in. Actually, there was respect for him, getting out of the American comfort zone. I often watch him now, see how he copes in different circumstances and think that the Challenge Tour was a good place to start.
Eddie Pepperell, player
Brooks hit the ball a long way but was a lot slimmer that he is now. I don't think he was into the gym that much, because you'd always see him out with his caddie and Pete Uilhein.
You could tell he had something about him, although I played with him once in Scotland and it was really windy and he had 100 yards in. The play was a knocked down six iron or something, but he hit a wedge and came up 50 yards short and I was thinking, 'uh, oh, stupid American, they just don't know how to play this sort of golf'.
But he proved me wrong. He clearly figured it out and fair play to him. He is fearless. I heard that when he was single back then, he once asked a girl out in a pro-am. That does take balls.
Pete Cowen, coach
Brooks asked me to have a look at his bunker play and it was terrible. I asked him to play a shot and it sort of squirmed out and I said 'that is horrendous'.
He seemed a bit put out and said 'you do it then'. So I took his sand wedge splashed it out and it went in. 'A fluke,' he said so I did it again and so it went in again. He said, 'I'd better start listening' and he did.
The best thing about Brooks is that you can have a laugh with him and he can take it. I remember we were in a restaurant near Wentworth and he had on this baseball cap, back to front. He fancied the waitress and she said something to me.
'He said, what did she say, what did she say?' I said 'She asked who the twat in the hat was.' He said, 'what's a twat?'. I said "it's British slang for 'cool dude'. He thought he was great until I let him in on the truth and told him to get the bloody hat off. I still call him it now. There's no side to Brooks and that's why it was so great coming over to Europe to learn the ropes. He is the real deal.
Iain Stoddart, PGA Professional
We promote the Scottish Hydro Classic at Aviemore and that week when Brooks won to get on to the European Tour was unforgettable and something that will always big up our tournament. There some names from the Tour playing and they came up to me and said 'who is this bloke?' He was incredible and it was great watching him and Mike the caddy hugging each other on the green. It was mission accomplished as far as Brooks was concerned. It meant something to him and it still does. When I see him we joke about it being 'his fifth major title'. A proper nice guy who added so much to the Challenge Tour. It helped him as well, though.
Neil Ahern, European Tour media official
Raymond Russell, the former European Tour pro, told me in Aviemore that Koepka was the best player he had played ever alongside, and he had played alongside Greg Norman.
Alain de Soultrait, the Challenge Tour director, and I had a chat with Koepka that week and he laid out his plans, that after his third win he was hoping to get a European Tour win soon and be on the PGA Tour as quickly as possible.
I remember thinking it quite brave him saying to the Challenge Tour chief that this whole 18 months was all just part of his plan to get back over to America, but he is nothing if not honest.
He was always talking about how he was aiming for majors and world No 1, which as you can imagine is unheard of in the Challenge Tour even with the really good players - we all sort of brushed it off as another cocky America, but, in truth, there was something very genuine and matter-of-fact about what he was telling us.
Of course, Brooks was a very positive story for us and what he achieved led a big increase in Americans at European Tour Q-School the following November.