Billy Foster: My tales from 40 years caddying on golf’s tours

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Millions across the world watched as Billy Foster broke down in tears following Matt Fitzpatrick’s US Open victory at Brookline.

Not only was it a first Major title for the 27-year-old golfer, but a first Major title for his caddie and fellow Yorkshireman. While Fitzpatrick had only been waiting the eight years since turning pro for the victory, it had been 40 long years coming for a man who has carried for everyone from Gordon Brand Jnr, Thomas Bjorn and Sergio Garcia, to Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and the great Seve Ballesteros.

He has even ‘looped’ for Tiger Woods, but despite being one of the game’s most decorated caddies, he had never been on a bag in a Major-winning week.

Matt Fitzpatrick and Billy Foster with the US Open trophy.

While the praise flooded in for Fitzpatrick, countless messages of delight were directed at Foster from across the globe, with former players among those heaping love on the popular caddie.

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It was a result that arguably meant as much to the bagman from Bingley St Ives as it did to Fitzptraick. Foster has witnessed many of golf’s most memorable moments up-close and intensely personally, including more than 40 victories, 14 Ryder Cups, and even a Presidents Cup with Tiger. He even witnessed (and tried to dissuade) one of the best shots of all-time from Seve. But, having come close on countless occasions, including Thomas Bjorn’s heartbreaking collapse on late in the final round at the 2003 Open, he was slowly losing belief that he’d ever witness his player winning one of golf’s Grand Slams… until Fitzpatrick’s phenomenal display at Brookline.

We sat down with Foster to reflect on his career, and the lasting impression was one of fun…

Let’s go right back – how did you get into caddying?

I was working for my father as an apprentice joiner. I was 16, getting £20 a week and getting sacked three times every week. There was a tournament at my home club, Bingley St Ives, in 1981, the Lawrence Batley International. I caddied there, at the Benson & Hedges at Fulford in York and the Car Care Plan International in Leeds. I also went to a few others in England. After a couple of years of that, a mate suggested we go to Spain for six weeks. We could caddie in the Spanish Open and move on to the Portuguese Open and Sanyo Open. I thought that sounded like a good idea. So, I set off with £50 and a bottle of brown sauce in my pocket.

That was the plan. But when I was in Spain, Hugh Baiocchi took a shine to me. He asked me if I wanted to caddie for him full-time. That was 1983.

Who was your first bag?

Mats Lanner from Sweden. Then a Spanish lad called Jesus Lopez. I worked for Tony Johnstone in Portugal and that was when I met Hugh. After they played a practice round together, he asked me if I wanted to come back out. I thought, “£20 a week as an apprentice, or the chance to see a bit of the world? No contest.”

My plan was to do it for two years, learn a bit more about the game so that I could play a bit better myself and get around Europe. There certainly wasn’t much money in it. I couldn’t afford to fly anywhere. I mostly slept in buses and trains overnight. One night I slept in a bush.

Billy Foster kisses the US Open's 18th hole flag at Brookline.

Where was that?

In the middle of a motorway in France. I was hitch-hiking. All in all, it was a tough existence. There were no mobile phones or laptops or credit cards. 

What made you keep doing it?

The camaraderie. Being involved with golf and the best players. I learned so much about the game, even if I wasn’t making money. There were no yardage books or range balls. No caddie food. Like everyone else I had to stand at the end of the range and have guys aim at me. It was dangerous (laughs). But I wouldn’t swap any of that for the world. It was a great upbringing. It wouldn’t do some of the younger lads out here today any harm to go through something similar. I’d like to see some of them without a yardage book for a week. And free food.

How do you feel about greens books?

I totally disagree. I moan a lot about how technology has changed the game. Shotmaking has gone out the window. And I tell you who the best of them was – Ian Woosnam. His trajectory, ball flight, the way he shaped shots into pins. 

Billy Foster caddied for Seve Ballesteros.

You saw maybe the greatest shot-maker of all-time up close. Tell us about Seve. 

I had been with Gordon Brand Jnr but was offered a job as the assistant pro at Ilkley. I was tempted. I’d been on tour for eight years so maybe it was time to take what I had learned and play better golf myself. I was decent back then. I accepted the job but before I started Seve asked me to caddie for him. Here was a guy I grew up idolising asking me to work for him. I couldn’t believe it when he asked me. He told me I was too young to retire from caddieing and that he was looking for a new caddie. I walked off (laughs). Then I ignored him for the next 16 holes. But I went home that night and thought, “you stupid bleep”. So, the next day I followed him up the 1st hole and when he came off the green I gave him a piece of paper with my name and address on it. “If you want to bring me out of retirement, you know where to find me.” Two weeks later a letter arrived ay my house. I still have it, framed on my office wall. 

What did it say?

It starts off praising me a little bit. He liked my attitude as a caddie. Blah, blah. Then he put me in my place. “These are my conditions. You must never speak to the press. You must know the player is always right – there must be no arguing. You must do your own yardages.” It was a proper riot act. He was very demanding. But I had five fantastic years with him and learned so much. Everyone talks about that shot he hit in Switzerland. But every week I saw three or four shots where my jaw just dropped. Today’s players wouldn’t even see those shots, never mind have the talent to hit them. That was the difference. And he did it every week.

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What are your best memories of him?

I remember a shot on Hazeltine’s 16th. It’s a par 4 with water all up the right side, with the green out on a peninsula. Back in the day, there was a big oak on the corner. It’s gone now. Got hit by lightning.  Anyway, Seve was stymied behind this tree. He had about 160 yards to the green. It was an 8-iron yardage. But he pulled out a 3-iron, opened the face and aimed 70 yards left. It cut all of those yards and finished in the middle of the green. It was probably the most impressive shot I ever saw him hit. It was more impressive than Switzerland. The shot at Crans was all about imagination. At Hazeltine it was technique. It was a great experience. He provided so much entertainment. And you could feel the love from the crowd every day. He had an aura. Every time he walked onto a tee, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. 

Seve Ballesteros was Spain's first World No.1.

He could be tough though.

He was tough. But after the first month, the Yorkshire terrier in me showed up. If I was getting a b*llocking I’d fight back. I’d shout back at him. If you lasted five minutes with him you were doing well. So to go five years shows how well we got on. I remember giving him a wrong yardage on the last hole at St Mellion when he won the 1994 Benson & Hedges. He had a two-shot lead and the pin was cut on the left side of the green, just over the water. I wanted him to play to the right, away from the lake and take three putts if he had to. He’d still win by one. I can still see the yardage now. It was 187m, right in between a 5- and 4-iron. With the pin cut five metres over the water. I knew he was going to take a 5-iron and crush it straight at the flag. So I gave him the wrong yardage on purpose. I added on seven and told him it was 194 to the pin. Sure enough, he hit a 4-iron to 15ft behind the hole. Walking up to the green I whispered in his ear (laughs). “I gave you the wrong yardage there to make sure you hit the 4-iron.” He wasn’t happy. But it was enough to win the tournament.

How did you last as long with Seve?  

I like to think I am serious when required. There must be 100 guys out here doing the same as me. But I found how to bring a bit of humour to it all with Seve, a bit of normality. When you are a global superstar, everybody tells you how good you are. So it was, I think, refreshing for him to have someone who told him when to stop being a pr*ck. When I caddied for Tiger, we were walking through the crowd when it went deathly quiet right after it had been incredibly loud. My ears were ringing with all the screaming. He had pen marks all over him. People were pulling his shirt. It reminded me of Seve. I said, “I’m going to tell you something.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“This reminds me of what it was like with Seve. You might be the best player who ever lived. You might be a billionaire. And you might have every material thing in the world. But I tell you now, I wouldn’t swap lives with you.” He looked at me for a moment. Then he said, “Thanks for that, Billy.” He knew where I was coming from. I genuinely felt sorry for him.

Caddying for Tiger Woods at the Presidents Cup in 2005.

Tell me about working for Tiger.

Steve Williams’ wife was about to have a baby. So he was unavailable for the 2005 Presidents Cup. At the Bridgestone in Akron, Tiger asked Darren Clarke – who I was working for at the time – if I could work for him in Canada. 

I was flattered. If Tiger isn’t the best player of all time, he’s second to Nicklaus. Darren asked me what I was going to do. I didn’t know at first. Lee Westwood was hitting balls right next to us. He piped up: “Billy, if you don’t caddie for him, I will.” Which was a good point. Five minutes later I shook Tiger’s hand and told him I would do it. With my reputation as the court jester of the European team and having done so many Ryder Cups, Billy Foster in the American team didn’t go down too well with some of their caddies. It’s not that I don’t get on with them, but some had a problem with me not being American. I offered to Tiger to stand down if it was going to be a problem. But he was having none of that.

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Was it different caddying for him?

Not that much. But when we got on the 1st in the first practice round, there was a bunker on the fairway. It was 290 yards to reach it, 310 to carry it. And the wind was into from the right. I was thinking he could hit his ‘stinger’ 2-iron down there short of the bunker and go from there. 

He asked for the yardage and I told him. So he pulls out his driver. I asked him if he didn’t like the 2-iron. He didn’t. Then he flew the bunker with his drive. I remember thinking then he was a different animal. He was something else.

That same day on the 11th he had 142 yards uphill to the green with the wind slightly against from the right. He had told me he hit his wedge maybe 135 yards and 9-iron 148. He asked what I thought and I said, “9-iron”. As you would. 

But he fancied the wedge. He hit it to six inches. I asked what that was all about.

He said: “Oh, don’t worry Billy. I have another gear when I need it.”

He was special. Back then you could just about shape shots with the ball. He put on an exhibition every day on the range. One thing really stands out. I always tell my kids to say “please’ or “thank you”. Tiger always said both. That impressed me as much as anything. His manners were impeccable.

Sharing a laugh with Tiger Woods.

Did you get inside his head at all? 

As much as I have caddied, I recognised the unbelievable aura he had about him then. He was the man. So I half-behaved myself as it was only for a week. But I like to think if I had been there for longer I would have brought something different to the job. I could have made things more ‘normal’ for him. It might have made life a bit easier for him, I don’t know.

I think a great caddie needs a strong back, an ability to count and a personality compatible with the player. The third is the most important. Agree?

Absolutely. That’s how it is with me and Lee. I’m serious when I need to be. But we laugh and joke and carry on like school kids all the way to the green. If you are serious all the time this game will drive you bonkers. But how the caddie behaves has to be comfortable for the player. You learn quickly. I’ve been fortunate to caddie for some of the world’s best players and I’ve had to adapt to them all. They’re all different. They are all psychopaths, but all on different levels (laughs). You have to learn what you can get away with. Some want you to volunteer information; others don’t. I had to do everything but hit the ball for Darren. But Sergio didn’t want that much information. I had to adapt to that and their mood swings. 

Billy Foster was caddying for Thomas Bjorn at the 2003 Open when victory slipped from his grasp on the 70th hole.

You were with Thomas Bjorn in the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s. He should have won, but didn’t. How hard was that?

It broke my heart. I’ve been to every Open since 1975 and never been on the winning bag. I’ve caddied for winning players 40-odd times, but would I give them all up for one Claret Jug? Absolutely. Darren had a great chance in 1997 at Troon but shanked it off the 2nd tee in the last round – which ruined him for the day. He had another great chance in 2001 at Lytham. Lee was two shots ahead with a few to play at Turnberry in 2009. Then three-putted the last. They were all hugely disappointing. But Thomas is the one I will take to my grave. He had it won.

What went wrong?

I look back and ask would I have done anything differently? Probably not. I always beat myself up after events. I’ve often wondered why I did something that didn’t work out. But with Thomas I can’t honestly do that. He drove into a fairway bunker on 15 after hitting his best two drives of the week on the previous two holes. It was a case of “keep going”. Plus, he got a bad kick. When we got to the green he turned to me and said, “we’re leading this by three”. I told him he had a lot of hard work still to do. We had to focus. One shot at a time.

The 16th was the easiest hole on the course that day. Four-feet to the right of the pin was dead. But there was half of Kent to the left. All we had to do was hit it 30ft left, make par and get out of there. It was a 6-iron. I told him “middle of the green”. But as soon as he hit it, I was going “no”. It was straight at the flag and sure enough it ended in the bunker. The rest is history. He took three shots to get out.

Davis Love III comforts Thomas Bjorn at the 2003 Open as caddie Billy Foster preapres to shake hands with the American.

Did he get too cute in the sand?

There was just so much sand in that bunker. And it was uphill to the pin. It was 15ft to the top of the hill, then the pin was only five-feet further on.

People think he stiffed the third shot.

Yes, out of his footprint. But the only thing I remember is the 17th hole on day one. He left his shot in the bunker and hit the sand in anger. “Can you believe I did that?’ he asked me. 

“What?”

“Left it in the bunker and made six.”

“Yeah, then you hit the sand. That six is an eight.”

So at least I can take to my grave the fact that I caddied for a guy who hit fewer shots than anyone else in an Open. We just didn’t get the Jug.

What’s the biggest mistake you have ever made?

We’ve all got one of those. Darren Clarke played the wrong ball at the Dunhill Links one year. That was maybe my biggest cock-up. What you never have to do is have 15 clubs in the bag. When that happened to Woosie and Miles Byrne in the 2001 Open at Lytham I was so upset for them. I still am. That was horrendous. If that had been me I’d have been on the railway line waiting for the three o’clock from Liverpool to run me over. I have a recurring nightmare about that maybe six times a year. I wake up in a cold sweat screaming.

A plaque marks the spot in Crans-Montana where Seve Ballesteros hit one of golf's most famous shots.

You touched on this earlier – tell us more about Seve’s famous shot in Switzerland.

It was 1993. Seve was five shots off the lead with six holes to play. Then he birdied 13-14-15-16-17 to tie for the lead. Then he hit a 3-wood off the 18th tee 50 yards right.

How bad was that shot?

It was a sh*t shot. He finished 30 yards right of the fairway behind an eight-foot wall. He had half a backswing. And over the wall were some trees. If you think of the shot on a clock face, he was trying to hit the ball to 10 o’clock – across the wall, through the trees and back to the fairway.

When he got to the ball I gave him the ‘slit throat’ signal to say he was ‘dead’ and that he should just chip-out sideways. From there, he would have a wedge to the green and still make par. He was down on his haunches, telling me he could see a shot. I told him he had lost the plot and to chip it out. “Why I listen to you? Why you put doubt in my mind? You son-of-a-bitch. Go get my yardage.” So I walked away. But I never actually got him a yardage. I had a quick glance and decided “140” would do. 

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“Okay, give me the pitching wedge.”

I asked him what he was doing. He told me he saw a gap. Which was actually a chink of daylight about the size of a dinner plate.  I told him I knew he was Seve Ballesteros but he wasn’t “f***ing Paul Daniels”. 

“Chip it out.”

“No. Why you put doubt in my mind? I have this shot you son-of-a-bitch. You go. You are the worst caddie I ever have.”

So I walked away, maybe 80 yards.

So he hit the shot. Dust flew up everywhere. The ball went through the gap, over the wall, over the swimming pool where Jean-Claude Francois was sunbathing, over the 80ft pine trees on the other side and landed a few yards short of the green. If I’d given him the right yardage he might have found the green (laughs). Then he chipped-in for birdie. I was on my hands and knees bowing to him. It was incredible. 

It’s tragic there is no footage of the shot.

They have the tee shot and chip-in. But it’s a shame.

Billy Foster has caddied at 14 Ryder Cups.

Is the Ryder Cup the most pressure for a caddie?

It’s different from a major. The atmosphere is unique. Plus, the caddies are a big part of the team that week. I’ve always been very honest. In 2006 at The K Club I was working for Darren. On the 10th on the first morning he and Lee were playing Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco. Lee was playing like God and Darren was playing like me. So I dobbed him in. I told (assistant captain) Peter Baker to tell (captain) Woosie that Darren was really struggling, even though they were two-up.

I was thinking about the team. I had to protect Woosie. And I’ve done that a couple of times. I told Paul McGinley in 2014 that he could always rely on the caddies to be honest with him. They would always give him an honest appraisal of a player’s form. But I also told him not to throw me under any buses for telling him anything. Woosie did that. He told Darren he wasn’t playing in the afternoon because “Billy said you are playing shite”. Darren didn’t speak to me for 24 hours (laughs).

I walked into the locker room on the Sunday morning before the singles and told him he could sack me if he wanted. But if he wasn’t going to do that, let’s get out there and win the Ryder Cup for Heather. Come on. Three hours later he was in tears, hugging me and telling me he loved me. So I got away with it in the end.

You’ve been in 14 Ryder Cups – what are the best and worst things about it? 

There have been some nasty experiences with the crowds, especially over there. We were with Danny Willett at Hazeltine last time and he got it 30 times on every hole. It was just sheer abuse. Sergio gets a lot of stick too. But that is part of it.

It shouldn’t be though.

No. But this is the football match of golf. And that’s why the crowd is so different. I’m sure most of them are not golfers. But that’s what makes the atmosphere different and increases the pressure.

RELATED: Billy’s tales from the Ryder Cup

Have you tried to get someone ejected?

I’m beyond all that, to be honest. I used to get angry. But I’ve learned to ignore it. I just smile and wish them all the best. I try to embrace it and love the fact they cheer against us. No point in getting upset. I just laugh at them. Lee and I were lining up a putt on the 15th in 2016 when a guy shouted from the stand: “Hey Westwood, you turd.” I laughed out loud. Gave him a thumbs-up. When Lee asked me to help him with the line, I told him it was a foot from the left. “Now knock it in, you turd.” Then I walked away. 

What has been your favourite Ryder Cup?

The K Club. Undoubtedly. It was an amazing experience. The crowds. The camaraderie. The team itself. The atmosphere. The situation with Darren and Heather. It was so emotional. And the result wasn’t bad. We gave them a good tousing.

Billy Foster shares an emotional moment with Darren Clarke at the 2006 Ryder Cup.

They had a terrible team…

Yeah. I’m going to say it was the only Ryder Cup I’ve been to where we could really enjoy the last nine holes. We knew we were going to win. It was a landslide.

Different from Medinah, 2012…

Oh yeah. I did a radio interview before the singles. I said we had to win the first five matches. If we did, the American team would be throwing up everywhere. I’ve seen it from both sides. That is exactly what happened.

Do caddies ever choke?

Yes. 

Billy Foster hits a shot on the 17th at The Players Championship.

For example?

When a caddie thinks ‘6-iron’, the player says it’s a 7-iron and the caddie says, “yes”. A better caddie will speak up and explain to the player why it’s a 6-iron. You have to explain. It’s a bit like a navigator sitting next to a rally driver. You have to give them all the information to make the right decision. You can’t rush it. When you’re under pressure – no matter what level of player you are – the mind starts racing. You rush decisions. A 15-handicap is the same as a pro in that situation. You have to slow down and think it through. Tom Watson says you win tournaments by limiting mistakes and he’s right.

Was your worst moment driving back from St George’s after Bjorn’s implosion?

God yes. I shed a few tears. I did the same in 2001. Darren had a chance to win but made a double-bogey on the 17th. I wanted him to hit 3-wood off the tee. He wanted to hit driver. And I let him do it. The ball ran 80 yards into a bunker. He hit a shot I wasn’t envisaging. I beat myself up about that. It wasn’t so much the wrong club, more the wrong shot and the wrong club. Maybe.

We saw you in tears at Brookline after Fitzpatrick’s win, kissing the 18th flag. What does it mean to you to finally win a Major?

I’ve been very fortunate anyway. I’ve caddied in Ryder Cups and been on the bag 40-odd times when my guy has won. Westy got to number one in the world and an Order of Merit. A lot of good things have happened. But I didn’t want my career to end without one.

Normally people have a monkey on their back, but I had a gorilla on mine and it was doing my head in. It was utter relief after all these years that finally one had got over the line. He’s normally a great putter and he missed quite a few short ones in that final round, but he hit 17 out of 18 greens and was unbelievable. He didn’t miss a shot.

Billy Foster is not a fan of the boiler suit caddies wear at The Masters,

What’s it like to caddie at the Masters? Are you irritated by the boiler suit? 

Yeah. The Masters is completely different from any other event. And yes, you do come in after a round and feel like you should be decorating the clubhouse. Those suits are very uncomfortable. 

It’s not my favourite major – The Open is – but it is the most exciting over the closing nine holes. It’s a special spectacle. The margins for error are so minute. The caddie’s job is so difficult. Two balls might land two-feet apart – one might be stiff, the other in a bunker. That’s what’s unfair about it. It’s the most mentally demanding event in the game. I’m always happy to get to the 73rd hole for a few beers.

RELATED: What caddies really think of The Masters

Billy Foster consoles Lee Westwood at the 2010 Masters.

What do you say at the end of a tournament when your guy could have won but didn’t?

It depends who it is. It’s all about timing and content. There’s always a time to give them space. I always try to pick out the positives, why they had a chance in the first place. Any mistakes have to be analysed and used as a positive in the next event. You have to look forward. 

That was especially true with Thomas after St George’s. I went out for dinner with him the next night in Portmarnock. I praised him constantly, telling him how good he was. This was a chance to show his peers how good he is. And he played brilliantly. But lost in a play-off. 

As we left the restaurant, we went into a pub next door. All the usual suspects were there – Lee, Darren, Woosie, Poulter. And when we walked in the place went deathly quiet. No-one knew what to say to Thomas. Then Darren piped up.

“Have you seen the draw for this week Thomas?”

“No, are we playing together?”

“No. You’re playing with Doug Sanders and Jean Van de Velde, you clumsy tw*t.”

There was silence for maybe two seconds then everyone p*ssed themselves. That’s the attitude you have to have.

At last! Billy Foster kisses the US Open trophy as Matt Fitzpatrick laughs!

Tell me about some of the great caddie characters.

One of the legends was called ‘Silly Billy’. There was ‘Jimmy Scouse’. And ‘Yorkie Bill’. They were always sponging off players: “Lend me a fiver, you tight tw*t.”

It was old school back in the day. They had no airs and graces. But they were funny. I remember Derek Cooper asking if he could carry a bunker. “I doubt it. It’s got two tons of sand in it.” They were just different. It has all changed now. It’s a lot more professional. We all dress smarter. And we conduct ourselves better. It’s night and day from what it was.

What’s the most fun for you?

The most fun? Winning and celebrating afterwards. It’s like I’ve been on a 40-year stag-do. It’s not been easy really… (laughs).

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