Caddie Billy Foster: ‘The Ryder Cup makes the majors look like monthly medals’
No one has been involved in more Ryder Cup matches than Billy Foster. One stands out.
Darren Clarke’s participation in 2006 had been seriously questioned following the death of his wife Heather just six weeks earlier. Ask Foster, the esteemed caddy, if it’s difficult to pick a memorable moment from a Ryder Cup connection dating back to 1987, and the answer is immediate.
“That’s not the case at all,” says Foster. “Hugging Darren Clarke on the 16th green on Sunday at the K Club in 2006 after winning the singles. It was an incredible moment. I have been fortunate to win 45 tournaments with different players, but that will go down as the most special moment of my caddying career.
“Walking to that first tee is the only time I’ve ever shed a tear on a golf course. I’ve had some heartbreaking moments, with Thomas Bjørn taking three to get out of the bunker at Royal St George’s (during the 2003 Open), and I didn’t even cry then, but 2006 brought tears to my eyes.”
Clarke had sought Foster’s advice on whether to accept one of only two available choices from the captain, Ian Woosnam. “He called me about three weeks earlier, told me he had been offered a wildcard and asked my opinion,” Foster recalls. “I told him he was more than good enough, that he was playing fantastically well, but it was about how he could deal with the extra emotion and pressure. I told him that Heather would like him to play, to win the Ryder Cup for her. He went out and won all his matches.”
If Foster ever chooses to write a book, the Ryder Cup chapter will be fascinating. This week at Marco Simone, where he sits on the bag for Matt Fitzpatrick, Foster’s 15th caddy in the biennial competition. It’s not just players who suffer from Ryder Cup nerves. “I’ve looked at leaderboards where it’s a sea of red or a sea of blue and your guts are in knots,” says Foster. “You feel like you want to get sick in the middle of the golf course.”
He has also taken on backroom roles. The most ‘incredible’ game he tasted ended when Fred Couples and Paul Azinger tied with Seve Ballesteros and José María Olazábal in 1991. The Spanish duo were Ryder Cup icons. While working for Ballesteros, Foster was in awe of their passion.
“They looked like two junkyard dogs,” says the Yorkshireman. “They wanted to win at all costs, and so did Seve would win at all costs. He wanted to cut open their chests, rip out their hearts and give them back to them on the 18th green. I used to call them demented Rottweilers, foaming at the mouth, straining on the leash on the way to the first tee.
Ballesteros was especially furious when it came to all things American. “You’ve never seen someone with so much passion or hatred,” Foster adds. ‘And hate is the word. You don’t see hatred in a Ryder Cup anymore, but 25-30 years ago it was very much ‘them against us’. In many ways, Seve felt insulted and hated about his career in the US. That edge, that hatred is gone.”
You can almost feel a hint of disappointment. Yet Team Europe’s harmony in this environment runs deep. “We are a band of brothers,” says Foster. “People who don’t necessarily get along are best friends that week. We have a lot of fun there, but you experience so many different emotions. Those brothers are there for you when you’ve had a bad time – and when it’s time to celebrate, there’s no party like it.
“The Ryder Cup makes the majors look like monthly medals. In terms of atmosphere it is second to none. It’s in my blood. I’ve been caddying full-time since I was 16. The European Tour has been everything to me. I just hope he can get back on his feet because he’s taken a few knocks, which is sad to see.”
There have been some hilarious episodes. In 2004, he stole Bjørn’s buggy during a practice session in Oakland Hills. The problem was that Foster and his bats fell off the wagon. “From my knees, all I could see was the buggy heading toward the crowd,” Foster says. “I thought about broken legs, lawsuits. It was like the Sea of Galilee breaking apart as the buggy raced through the crowd and into the trees. Everyone thought it was hysterical… except Clarkey, who went crazy over me.’
Foster shrugs off the scale of the American celebrations in Brookline in 1999, which drew harsh criticism from some in the European camp. “I could understand it,” he says. “You just keep going. They played the better golf.”
He delves into the situation of Lee Westwood, another former employer, and other high-profile European golfers who are excluded from the Ryder Cup after moving to LIV. Things aren’t sitting well with Foster.
“It’s a shame,” says the 57-year-old. “I can see the other side, I can see everyone’s point of view. Mine is that you look at what happens in that dressing room, you see the performances of certain players – Westwood, García, Poulter – and what they brought to the team. They have been inspiring. I find it very sad that, as things stand now, they will no longer be involved. Those three guys would definitely be your next three captains.”
Fitzpatrick, who won the US Open with Foster last summer, strangely enough has not yet won a Ryder Cup. Foster believes the Englishman has been “unlucky” in that regard but has backed the 29-year-old to break his duck. “He is twice the player he was three or four years ago,” Foster insists. Experience shows that this is a man worth listening to.