Caddie Billy Foster has played a role in more Ryder Cups than pretty much anyone else, and when he starts talking about his experiences from 14 matches, you can’t help but listen.
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Pop quiz: can you name Europe’s most prolific Ryder Cup team member? He’s appeared in 14 matches, competed alongside legends such as Seve, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, and was part of Thomas Bjorn’s backroom team in Paris. Yet he’s never hit a ball, or been announced on the first tee. The answer, of course, is Billy Foster.
The 58-year-old, currently on the bag of Matt Fitzpatrick, has been part of eight winning teams (and five losing ones), most recently in Paris in 2018, to which he was invited by Westwood. “I was helping the lads,” he tells us as we chat in the bar named after him at his beloved Bingley St Ives Golf Club in West Yorkshire, “either by being the locker room clown or by going out on the course and getting the pins for the lads for the next day, walking round the course, retrieving Francesco Molinari’s yardage book, which he forgot, and providing Ian Poulter with some balls after he ran out.”
Foster made his debut on the bag of Gordon Brand in 1987. “I’ve seen a lot of shit happen doing Ryder Cups over the past 35 years, good, bad and ugly. It’s been a massive part of my life, memories I’ll take to my grave. I don’t dwell on it, but if people bring it up, I’ll happily talk about it. I don’t go around like, ‘Here’s Billy Big Bollocks who’s done 15 Ryder Cups’. I’ve just been fortunate to do so many; it’s one of the best events on Earth."
Here's what Foster has to say about the Ryder Cup...
The best two golf tournaments, for me, are the Masters and The Open, but the Ryder Cup makes those two feel like a monthly medal atmosphere-wise – it’s golf with a football crowd. Love, hate and tears. The rollercoaster of emotions and noise levels of a Ryder Cup... there’s nothing like it in the sport. Golf is a very selfish game, it’s dog eat dog, and normally you don’t really give a damn about anyone else even if they’re making double bogeys. At the Ryder Cup it’s great to witness those selfish individuals come together.
The camaraderie inside that team room is incredible – guys who don’t normally get on would take a dagger for the team and that’s the way it is. The atmosphere and camaraderie in the European locker room is unique, you get guys of so many nationalities bonding together. It’s like a band of brothers prepared to die for one another. It’s a unique experience.
Your first two or three Ryder Cups are very nerve-wracking. Maybe certain players will wilt under the pressure, the hatred or animosity which come from the opposition crowd. But now I love getting abuse! I laugh back at them by turning things around to make my player feel comfortable.
I made my Ryder Cup debut in 1987 at Muirfield Village, the first time Europe won on American soil – a very special experience. It was my first time ever in America and, driving into the golf course, I thought, “Why are there so many pristine little greens everywhere?” Then I realised they were the tees… I’d never seen a course in such condition in my life!
To be honest, it was quite a disappointing ending even though it was an historic victory. Don’t get me wrong, the party afterwards was great – but I was caddieing for Gordon Brand Jnr, who was comfortably beating Hal Sutton, and we stood in the middle of the 17th fairway for 20 minutes when Seve holed the winning putt and everyone was celebrating and dancing on the green!
Obviously, we couldn’t join in the celebrations, we had to wait for the green to clear and then play the last two holes. By now, Gordon was one-up playing the last and ended up giving Sutton a 15-footer putt to halve the match, and I’m really disappointed, saying, “You want to win, you want to win.” Maybe it’s the Yorkshire in me, but I said, ‘You don’t want to be giving him that, make him earn it.’ It didn’t matter – the Ryder Cup was won and I got to see the bigger picture – but it left a bad taste in my mouth for a while.
My most memorable Ryder Cup was 2006 at the K Club, caddieing for Darren (Clarke) six weeks after his wife passed away. It was the most emotional Ryder Cup of all-time; walking to the first tee in tears on that first day; Darren breaking down in tears on the 16th green with 10,000 people around the green and in the stands. It was a brilliant Ryder Cup.
Medinah in 2012 was at a different level, too, but unfortunately I wasn’t at that one because I’d snapped my cruciate ligament. I had to watch it back home and that broke my heart.
There have been so many brilliant matches down the years, including Clarke and Westy beating Tiger and David Duval when they were one and two in the world at Oakland Hills (2004), and how can you forget the Batman and Robin (Seve & Olazabal) of Spain? Their record is second to none, the dream team. You can’t take anything away from Ian Poulter; Luke Donald’s record is right up there; and Sergio might be playing rotten, but he arrives at the Ryder Cup and he just turns into a raging bull!
Though we narrowly lost at West Palm Beach in 1983, that was the changing of the Ryder Cup guard. From then until the current day, we’ve had the best of it – and I’ve been very fortunate to have been part of those great times. We’re always the underdogs, always out to prove people wrong and at Whistling Straits our team is in a massive transition period. Some of the better players we’ve had for the last 15-20 years have either gone or are on the slide and haven’t quite been replaced by world-class players yet.
The reason we’ve been so dominant is that we’ve had absolute quality players backed-up by the team spirit and camaraderie within the locker room to fire one another up. They play with fun, as a unit, no individuals.
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Where do I start! How about Seve’s big ‘fight’ with Paul Azinger at Kiawah Island? They argued for half an hour on the 10th tee because they’d been changing the ball with different compressions. Jose brought it up. Azinger denied it, but once he found out it wasn’t going to change the state of the match, his amnesia suddenly relented and he remembered he did do that after all. I told Seve on the 10th tee that Paul had gone past saying, “Nice try” and Seve went blue, frothing at the mouth. “Hey, Jose, what he say to Billy? Son of my bitch, we kill this man and give his heart on a platter on the 18th green.” Sure enough, we won five of the next holes and beat them 2&1. You don’t mess around with angry Spaniards…
In 1997 at Valderrama, the caddies had been on a night out, doing a bit of team bonding with a few beers. It was Darren Clarke’s first match with Colin Montgomerie against Fred Couples and Davis Love III, and on the par-3 3rd, Monty found the right-hand bunker. He knifes it out and as it’s flying towards the crowd at head height, I’ve reacted by running across the green, plucking the ball out of the air, and throwing it up with a cry of “Howzat!” The two Americans looked at me, thinking what the hell is going on here? Then suddenly, I’m thinking, “What have I done? Have I just cost us the hole..?” I went into full-blown panic for 10 seconds. The referee said, “Billy, you need to be a bit more sensible than this.” I said, “Ref, don’t take it so seriously… it’s only the Ryder Cup”… and walked to the next tee with Couples and Love laughing. It was me being a total clown, as usual. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
After our historic win at Muirfield Village in ’87, the players stayed on and celebrated, but the caddies were on a flight back that night and I was walking around the airport, wandering through the X-ray scanner with a bag on my shoulder when the police pulled me back. Nick Faldo’s caddie Andy Prodger said, “You want to be careful, he might have a bomb in it.” That was the last time we saw Andy for a while as three policemen slammed him up against a wall and stuck him in a cell overnight! It was a bit of an eye-opener for a 21-year-old lad making his first visit to America.
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Crowds play a huge part in the Ryder Cup, but there’s a fine line between being boisterous and just being abusive… and I’ve seen both in Ryder Cups. These days, I always make a bee-line for the rookies or those relatively new to it and put an arm around them to give them some words of wisdom built up over the decades.
Certain abuse gets thrown at players and I try to laugh it off by having a chip back at them and making a joke out of it. Embrace it for what it is because, at the end of the day, it’s a golf tournament with a football crowd – if you’re an away team at a football ground, you’re going to get absolute pelters thrown at you the whole game. The best players always do. So you have to embrace it, deal with it, roll on your back and get on with it. There’s only one way to shut them up… and that’s to get your head down and win a point.
The best match I’ve ever witnessed was from the picture that sits up there (in Billy’s Bar at Bingley St Ives GC), a silhouette of Seve and Olazabal after holing out in the dark to halve their match against Payne Stewart and Fred Couples. An amazing match from the 1991 ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah Island, the ugliest, most horrible Ryder Cup. Pure and utter hatred from both sides and it deserved its nickname.
Brookline in 1999 wasn’t pleasant, either, but you could sort of get your head around that because the USA were dead and buried and it got a bit ugly. When it was the European Tour players against PGA Tour players there was hatred. But now a lot of the guys live in America, play on the PGA Tour all the time and a lot of them are friends, so that bitterness has disappeared. It’s far more sportsmanlike nowadays, a lot friendlier.
Seve absolutely despised the Americans. But that’s the way he was and I had to wrestle with him on the golf course. “I want to kill the son of my bitch,” and he’s frothing at the mouth. And I’m saying, “Whoah, whoah, tranquilo, tranquilo, you’re beating him anyway, just relax.”
And the Hilarious
There have been a lot of comical moments. One that immediately springs to mind is when Thomas Bjorn was assistant captain at Oakland Hills (in 2004) and he had a Lewis Hamilton golf buggy which fizzed around all over the place. It was Jimenez and Garcia against Westwood and Clarke in a practice round, and the 12th tee was elevated so Thomas parked the buggy at the bottom of the hill. As soon as the last player hit, I decided to jump in the buggy and speed away in it, prompting a scene out of Benny Hill as they were all chasing me. I’m stood up in the buggy with a bag on my back, only to lose control of the thing, ended up falling out and doing a triple somersault and landing on my head in the middle of the fairway with a bag on top of me! As I looked up, the buggy was racing straight towards the spectators. I was horrified. It was like the parting of the Red Sea as the buggy went straight through the crowd and into the trees. I thought, “My God, I’ve got away with that” – everyone was crying with laughter apart from Darren, whose clubs were all over the place, shouting, “You idiot, you could have killed somebody.” He had a point.
The Key to Ryder Cup Success
Self-belief is key, along with keeping your emotions in check, slowing your thought process down and keeping in the moment. You need that fire in your belly, but you can’t be afraid to lose or ruffle your opponent’s feathers.
Ian Poulter went onto the range before Sunday’s singles at Celtic Manor in 2010 and declared, “I will deliver a point.” Tiger then went up to Matt Kuchar and said, “Did you just hear what he (Poults) said, he’s going to guarantee Europe a point?” Poults was right. He won 5&4. Mental strength is everything… I guess you’ve got to have a killer instinct, a silent assassin somewhere inside you.
You’re not out there to be nice, but you don’t have to be nasty, either. Just don’t have the blinkers on and get carried away by the emotion going on around you.
It doesn’t matter what the teams look like on paper – it’s 18 holes of golf, dog eat dog, and it’s about the player who can hole a putt when it matters. Anybody can beat anybody. Phil Price beat Phil Mickelson; Costantino Rocca beat Tiger Woods – it’s happened so many times down the years.
Successful Ryder Cup players must have the bollocks of an elephant and a really strong mind that doesn’t get affected by everything else that’s going on. That’s why Poulter has done so well down the years. That’s why Luke Donald’s focus and Monty’s passion for the Ryder Cup have seen them thrive.
The Caddie's Role in a Ryder Cup
There’s more to it than just giving the yardage and a golf club – it’s about saying the right thing at the right time when your emotions are running away from you. The caddie is the jockey, and every now and then he needs to pull the reigns or crack the whip.
There are times when you need to fire a player up, times you need to know what to say and times you need to shut up. I hardly see anything else going on out there.
I’m just focused on the information I have to get the right club in the player’s hands, or reading the putt, or finding the right part of the green, or advising on the wind or pin position. When Darren Clarke holed an 80 footer on the 12th to go four-up against Zach Johnson at the K Club in 2006, I could tell his mind had gone and that he was thinking about winning the Ryder Cup, thinking about Heather, who had passed away. He was struggling, so when we got to the next tee I said, “Darren, just give yourself a minute; tie your shoes or something to get your heart rate down and focus on the job in hand.” I pulled the balloon out of the sky because he was flying away… I just wanted to keep him grounded. If I’d have been a jockey, I’d have been done for excess whipping for the next few holes because all I was trying to do was to get him over the line. Eventually he did, but it was hard work. That's what a caddie does.
Billy Foster is a global brand ambassador for leading electric trolley brand Motocaddy.
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