The Pro's Pro - Interview with caddie Billy Foster
Short of playing this game for a (lucrative)
living there can be few jobs more satisfying
than that of a caddie to a world-class player;
a box-seat from which to witness great golf
and a globe-trotting itinerary to some truly
breathtaking destinations where you are
treated, increasingly, to the same levels of
hospitality as your boss.
Billy Foster has enjoyed this existence for 30
years and his CV is second to none: after a
spell with the South African Hugh Baiocchi he
found himself in the company of Gordon
Brand Jnr, with whom he experienced his first
taste of the Ryder Cup. Next up was Seve, a
player Foster idolised as a boy and the man he
credits today for making him the caddie he is.
The list goes on: Thomas Bjorn (and the
heartache at Royal St George’s in 2003),
Sergio Garcia, an emotional ride with Darren
Clarke and, ultimately, a relationship with Lee
Westwood that appears set to last for quite
some time yet, the two men as close off the
course as they are a formidable team on it.
Here, to mark his 30 years on tour, Billy talks
to Carolyn Nicoll about the life of a bag man.
What is your very first golfing memory?
My Dad would take my older brother and me to
Branshaw Golf Club in Keighley, West Yorkshire, near
where I grew up. I was about 8 years old and Dad
promised that if one of us made a par that he’d buy us
pop and crisps. We only had two clubs between us – I
had a 7-iron and my brother a 5-iron. One of us made
a par, I’m not sure who, but we got our pop and crisps.
How did you get into caddying?
It all began in 1982 at Bingley St Ives Golf Club in
Bradford. There was a European Tour event and players
asked if any of the juniors would like to caddie. I
volunteered and really enjoyed it. I went on to caddie
at a few other events in York, Leeds and London and
the following year a friend of mine suggested heading
over to Spain on a six-week holiday to see if we
could pick up a bag at a few tournaments. That was
where my career took off, as I worked with several
good players, including Tony Johnstone and Mats
Lanner. Towards the end of the trip, South Africa’s
Hugh Baiocchi asked if I’d come back the following
season and work for him. At the time I was an
apprentice joiner for my Dad, earning £25 a week –
and getting sacked at least twice a week! So I decided
to give it a go. I worked with Baiocchi from 1984-’86 –
he made it into Europe’s top 20 – and then for five
years with Gordon Brand Jnr. That was pretty special,
as it gave me my first taste of Ryder Cup golf.
You were on the bag for Europe’s historic 1987 victory
at Muirfield Village?
Yes, that was some induction. Right there, in Jack
Nicklaus’s backyard, Europe won the cup for the first
time on American soil. The European team included
the ‘Big Five’ of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy
Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. Tony
Jacklin was the captain and Seve sank the winning putt. It was magical. I also caddied at The Belfry in
’89. That was more disappointing, as we managed to
let slip a winning position. The match ended up tied –
only the second stalemate in the history of the
matches. A week later I was offered the job as assistant
at Ilkley, in Yorkshire, and I would have taken it
had Seve not asked me to work for him. That was an
invitation you couldn’t turn down.
How did the opportunity with Seve come about?
I was with Gordon [Brand Jnr] on what I’d planned
was to be my second-to-last tournament and we were
drawn to play with Seve for the first two days in
Stuttgart. Halfway through the round I was aware of
footsteps behind me – Seve tapped me on the shoulder
and said ‘What are your plans for next year?’. I
explained about the job at Ilkley and he said ‘No, no!
You’re too young to retire’. Which was Seve’s way of
inviting me to work with him. There wasn’t much of a
decision to make. The next day I gave him my business
card and told him that if he wanted to bring me
out of retirement he knew where to find me! About a
month later I received a letter from Seve offering me
the job. He explained that he’d been watching me and
liked my attitude. Then he listed his conditions – so
he built me up and then put me right back in my
place, basically saying if you want to caddie for me,
this is what I expect from you.
How did it feel, your first tournament together?
We were playing Doral, in Miami. Naturally I was
apprehensive. Seve was the greatest golfer of his
generation and he just had this aura about him.
You could feel it the moment you met him. It was a
great honour for me to be there as his caddie and I
was humbled when I saw him walking towards me.
He held out his hand to shake mine, which was a
very special moment. I’d been watching the Open
since 1975 – I’d go with my family – and I’d grown
up idolising these top players. To achieve a goal of
working alongside one of the world’s most famous
golfers was fantastic for me, just an incredible
In fact, that first outing was not a tournament but
an exhibition match with Jack Nicklaus, Greg
Norman and Raymond Floyd, who was a touring pro
at Dural. There must have been at least 15,000 people
following us – and the golf was something of a
shock, to say the least. Seve played like me. I couldn’t
actually believe how poorly he hit the ball. He
missed the cut in the tournament proper and the following
few weeks were not good. I started to think
that if I gave myself a couple of weeks practice I
could give him a good game! I couldn’t believe it. I’d
waited all those years for this chance of a top job
with the person I’d perceived to be the world’s best,
yet it seemed that he was finished with the game.
But that was Seve in those days. He went through
massive peaks and troughs. Just six weeks after I
started working for him he went on to win three
tournaments in four weeks and he was the best player
in the world again. It was such a rollercoaster ride
with Seve, but no matter what, he always had this
incredible aura about him.
From a caddie’s perspective, can you put your finger
on what it was that made Seve so special?
Sheer determination and character. Seve had a ‘never
say die’ attitude. He would have walked over broken
glass to shoot 79, not 80. Eighty he considered a
humbling number in golf. Seve had real pride and the
game meant so much to him. Seve always had a totally
professional approach to get the very best that he
could get out of his day. That attitude and determination
stays with me. It was in his course management,
the vision he had for certain shots. Today, while I
might not be able to play the shots myself, I can
stand at the side of whoever I’m caddying for and
‘see’ the right shots, even from what might appear an
impossible situation. That’s all down to Seve.
Describe the scene that unfolded on the final hole
at the European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in 1993,
when Seve managed the ‘impossible’ shot.
Simply the best shot I’ve ever seen. Seve had birdied
five holes in a row before he stood on the 18th tee
and he was tied for the lead. He slashed his tee shot
into the middle of some pine trees and finished
behind an eight-foot wall. He had half a backswing – a
tree was in the way. I saw him on his hands and
knees looking at this tiny gap, the size of a dinner
plate, 10 yards in front of him. Bear in mind his ball
was only a couple of yards from the wall. Seve had
about 140 yards to the green and I begged him to
chip it out sideways – he could get up and down for a
par and still win the tournament. He brushed his
hand at me: “No, Billy, I have this shot”. Eventually, in
frustration I said to him, look I know you’re Seve
Ballesteros but you’re not ****ing Paul Daniels, just
chip it out will you!?”, but he wouldn’t listen and
again brushed me away: “No, I have this shot you son
of my bitch!”. All I could think about was my percentage
of the winnings dwindling by the second!
Anyway, he got down on his haunches and proceeded
to play what can only be described as a miracle shot.
With half a backswing he hit it over an eight-foot wall
with a pitching wedge, through this tiny gap between
the pine trees, over the swimming pool, then over
some 50 foot conifers, and it landed two or three
yards short of the green. Then, for good measure, he
chipped it in for a three.
I’m not saying Seve was one of the few professionals
who would have played that shot, I’m saying he
was the only professional who I’ve come across who’d
have taken the shot. It was kamikaze play, ridiculous,
just stubborn stupidity. I got down on my knees and
bowed to him. People loved Seve because he took on
shots like that. That’s what made him special.
As a career move you couldn’t have picked a better
player with whom to establish your reputation?
Everything I know as a caddie came from those five
years with Seve. Not least, Seve gave me the opportunity
to work for him. And that was the greatest
endorsement for me.. Other golfers respected the job
I did for him. Having that association with one of the game’s greats, well, you’re considered a good caddie –
whether I am or not is for other people to determine!
It was an amazing experience. Seve and I had good
times and bad times together. We were very close, like
brothers. To think of him at the end, before he
passed away, it broke my heart.
You’ve been with Lee Westwood for three years
now – what has been the highlight?
I’m hoping the highlight is still to come! Working
with Lee is the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. We
get on so well, he’s my best mate. Lee has rededicated
himself to the game. He works harder than anyone
can possibly imagine and he’s playing some of
the best golf he’s ever played right now. A lot of people
forget that Lee was up there with the best of the
European golfers in the late 1990s and then had a
shocking period from 2001-03. He went from No. 4
in the world to 250. So for him to come back and
reach the No.1 spot in world golf is an unbelievable
achievement. He’s won eight tournaments in the
three years that we’ve been together and he’s had a
handful of good opportunities to win a major. He
keeps knocking on the door and that’s a testament
to how consistent he is. The defining moment will be
that first major.
How close are you off the course?
We have a great time. We took our families on holiday
to Dubai for a week last year and we also enjoyed a
mini cruise with our wives out of St Tropez, what a
fantastic experience that was – a brilliant place and a
bit of a booze cruise! [laughs]. It’s a bit different from
a boat trip on the local canal in Yorkshire. I often stop
and think just how lucky am I? This really isn’t bad
for a lad who was brought up on an estate in
Keighley. Lee and I also like to go to big sporting
occasions together. We like the football and go to
watch Leeds United or Nottingham Forest. If you can
call that a big sporting occasion!
What’s the best golf you’ve seen Lee play?
There are two occasions I would nominate, both
towards the end of last season. Lee shot 62 at Sun City,
in South Africa, and that was probably the best ball
striking display I’ve ever seen as a caddie. The best
round I’ve seen him play was at Amata Springs, in
Thailand, when he shot 60 – and this was over a difficult
golf course with 20mph winds blowing. Lee’s on
top form at the moment, he’s never been fitter and he’s
got that confidence a player needs. If you feel good
physically then you’ve got that positive approach.
Who do you rate as the best ball striker you’ve ever
It’s a toss up between Lee and Sergio Garcia. Lee is
unbelievably accurate off the tee, very straight and
long. Sergio is great at driving the ball and shapes the
ball as well as any current player. His control of ball
flight is also second to none. Darren [Clarke] had his
moments, too. I’d say Darren’s golf during the 1999
European Open at the K Club in Dublin – when in the
second round he shattered the course record by four
strokes with a 12-under-par 60 – was sublime.
And you had another momentous week with
Darren there in the 2006 Ryder Cup?
Yes. Darren called me to say he’d been offered the
wild card – this was just after his wife, Heather, had
passed away. He asked me my thoughts. We had a
personal discussion and decided that the right thing
to do was what Heather would have wanted him to
do, and play. The atmosphere through the week
brought tears to my eyes on several occasions; the
last round was so special, it was basically coming
down to Darren to win the Ryder Cup and it was so
emotional for him on the 16th when he did. He just
burst into tears. That will stay with me forever as my
most memorable occasion on a golf course.
If you had your time again would you consider
being a professional golfer?
No! Not unless I happened to be 10 shots a round
better than I am. There’s an ocean of difference
between being a good low handicap amateur and a
tour player. Young players don’t understand it; they
get to scratch and think they are a good player. But
you have to be exceptional to make it as a pro these
days. A scratch player is like a 12 handicapper compared
to the standard of the top players. The courses
are just so much longer, the rough is tougher, there’s water everywhere and the greens are like lightning. I’d
have been eating baked beans out of a can for the
rest of my life if I’d gone down the pro route.
When Steve Williams went off to be at the birth of
his first child, Tiger Woods ‘borrowed you’ from
Darren Clarke. What was it like working with Tiger?
Tiger’s the only man that I’ve worked for who has
that same aura as Seve. These people are few and far
between but I felt it with Tiger. I knew it was going to
be a massive challenge but one that I’d relish. It was a
very intimidating situation, even though I had all that
experience of working with big-name players. I actually
struggled to be myself with Tiger over the first few
days because I knew just how important it was.
Tiger’s the best player of all time. Of course, he may
never be considered that until he beats Jack’s
[Nicklaus] major record, but for that ten-year period
when Tiger was on top, say from 1998-2008, he was
untouchable. He’s a special man and it was a pleasure
to work for him. One day my kids will look back and
say “My Dad caddied for Tiger Woods”.
Is the general consensus among the players you are
around, and other caddies, that Tiger is the best
player of all time?
Yes, I’d say so. For that 10-year period Tiger was the
complete package. He drove the ball long, his distance
control was incredible, his short game was as good as it
gets, his putting was amazing. He just nevermissed
putts. I remember asking Steve [Williams] how many
putts he could remember Tiger missing on the last green
when he needed it to win a major tournament... and he
couldn’t remember a single one. His mental strength was
unsurpassable. He was the ultimate warrior.
Were you tempted to throw your name into the
ring as Tiger's new caddie?
No, not at all. I’m extremely happy in the job I’m
doing with Lee. He’s a top player, he’s my best friend
and he’s giving his all to win. Don’t get me wrong,
working for Tiger is a job that any caddie would love
and I’ve done it for a week. I really like Tiger, we got
on well then and we still do. Working for Tiger’s very
different, as you are constantly under the spotlight,
on and off the course. Even if you pop out for a meal,
there’s the Tiger circus that surrounds him. I’m not
saying that I wouldn’t want to do it again one day, but
I’ve certainly no plans of throwing it all away with Lee,
we’re having the best time together and I’m looking
forward to what’s to come.
What’s your ultimate goal?
My burning desire is to caddie for the guy who wins
the Open Championship. It’s been close on a number
of occasions – no more so than with Thomas Bjorn at
Royal St George’s in 2003 and to a certain extent with
Lee at Turnberry in 2000, when we were all watching
Tom Watson. Hopefully it will be this year.
Those closing moments with Thomas at Sandwich
must have been tough to endure?
Being on the bag with Thomas when he lost the Open
in 2003 was the most painful experience I’ve ever
known on a golf course. We stood on the 15th green
and he turned to me and said ‘Billy we’re leading this
by three’, which was quite a statement to make. I told
him there was a lot of hard work to do and that he
needed to focus on what he was doing. After leaving
his ball in the bunker twice at 16 he made doublebogey
and then had another bogey at the 17th. He
eventually lost by a shot. I know how tough it was for
me – and you can only imagine how he must have
felt. I thought about it every day for six months.
That’s how much it hurt me.
How often do you actually get to play golf?
I don’t really, just a couple of times a year. Officially
I’m still off 4, but I don’t play enough to justify that.
What’s been your lowest handicap?
It was 3, but I’ve caddied more or less full time from
the age of 16, so I’ve actually had little time to play
golf. That’s one of the few regrets I have – I’ve seen
the best players, had some incredible lessons, and I
know I could have been a pretty decent player, but I
just don’t have the time. I’m on the road with golf for
32 weeks of the year so when I do get back home I
want to spend my time with my wife and children.
When I’ve been carrying a bag around as part of my
job, the last thing I want to do is carry my own golf
bag around in my spare time!
Are you still a member at Bingley?
I’ve been a member at Bingley St Ives for 32 years. The
19th hole is actually known as ‘Billy’s Bar’ and is full of
golfing memorabilia that I’ve donated. I like to go there
on a Saturday teatime when I’m at home. There’s a
great set of people at the club and a fantastic atmosphere.
It’s the one 19th hole that’s really special to me.
On the rare occasions you do get your clubs out,
who would you invite for a dream fourball?
That’s a tough question. Jack Nicholson, for his character.
I suppose I’d throw in Tiger in his prime – not
that Lee will be happy about that [laughs]. I’ll put Seve
in as well. So that’s Tiger and Seve vs. Jack Nicholson
and Billy Foster! Oh, and I’ll tell you what, if I had £5
for every time someone has said I look like Jack Nicholson I’d be a multi-millionaire by now. I don’t
know why. I think it’s when I put my shades on.
Where would you play this epic match?
We’d play at Royal Dornoch in the Highlands of
Scotland, because of its tranquillity and beauty. It’s
also a great course. Scotland and Ireland are my
favourite destinations – I love links courses.
What’s the best golf gadget on the market today?
As a caddie, it’s got to be the laser. I’ve always done
my own yardages, and it wasn’t all that long ago I was
still using a yardage wheel, the type you see guys
measuring motorways with. And I had a bit of string
that I’d pull out of a box. I remember one hole in Sun
City in South Africa and I had this yardage string
going through snake-infested jungle and then over
water to a short par three. It took me over an hour to
get a precise number to the centre of the green. Now
I’d just walk on the tee, zap the flag and it would tell
me – 130 yards precisely. Before the laser it could
take me six hours and more to map a course. Now I
can have it done in three hours.
Do you keep up to date with all the new golf
equipment and gadgets?
Absolutely not. My view on it is if it ain’t broke don’t
fix it. Lee gets new stuff thrust at him all the time and
my argument is always that you got to be the world
No. 1 using the equipment you’ve got, so why change
it when you’re playing your best? I’m not big on
change; it has to be far superior to even consider it.
What’s your favourite golf tournament?
There are two. The Open Championship and the
Ryder Cup are the best tournaments in the world, by
far. The Open is the oldest and most prestigious – as
a British person it is the tournament you want to win.
The Ryder Cup for the atmosphere. There’s no other
tournament with an atmosphere like it.
Talking about the Ryder Cup, which of the most
recent captains did most to make the caddies feel
a part of the team?
That’s a tough one because they all have their different
ways and there are great qualities about all
of them. Colin Montgomerie and Mark James were
both brilliant because they really did make the caddies
feel involved. Some captains have meetings
with the players but not always with the caddies,
but Monty and Jesse made a point of involving us.
They both made it a lot of fun.
How do you think Jose Maria Olazabal will fare
I think he’ll be the best captain ever and I mean
that. He’s got that fantastic passion for the role.
His desire and honour are second to none. English
may not be his born language, but let me tell you,
he’s a better communicator than most of us!
How has the caddie’s lot changed since you started?
Dramatically. It was a tough existence being a caddie
in the early days and there were many times when I
got to the end of the week and couldn’t afford the
bus home (and I mean bus - I rarely flew in those
days). In 1983 I caddied for Tony Johnstone in
Portugal, he came 7th and won £900. I got 5% of
that – £45. My wage was £90 and out of that I had to
get to Portugal and pay for the hotel and food. It was
hard to make a living back then but it’s a different
story today. Not only financially. We are well looked
after at tournament venues, the practice ranges have
all you could wish for and travel is much easier.
What’s the best route in for anyone interested in
becoming a tour caddie?
There is no easy way in. When I started there were relatively
few who wanted to do it. Now, with the money
in golf there are plenty of candidates. Even ex-players
want to become caddies because it enables you to be
a part of the tour, to travel the world and make
decent money. So it’s difficult, but my advice would
be to go to a qualifying school or the Challenge Tour
and get a foot in the door that way. Keep your eyes
open and follow trends to see who is good on that
tour and then hopefully graduate to the main tour
with one of the up and coming players. Once you get
on the tour, it’s a case of being humble, respect people,
dress smart and rock up on time.
What’s been your most lucrative week’s work?
Er, that’s classified! Caddie’s generally get paid a
wage and then a percentage of the player’s winnings. It tends to be 5% but could go up to 10% if
you’re with one of the top players and you win a
big tournament. When Lee won the Dubai World
Championship and the Race to Dubai in 2009 it
was a double-whammy with the bonus pool. It was
lucrative, but I’m not saying how much!
This year you’re celebrating 30 years on tour. Did
you ever dream that you’d get to work with such
golfing legends – and still be doing it 30 years
down the line?
No, not at all. My goal was to set off for a couple of
years and maybe see Europe. I wanted to experience
the game and learn more as a player myself. Here I am
30 years down the road and I’ve been so fortunate to
have had such a great career and caddied for so many
fantastic players and been in the company of the greatest
players in golf over the last few generations. Along
the way I’ve been lucky to have encountered some
incredible people and seen some unbelievable places.
There are one or two that stick in your mind – the
ones you want to have your photo taken with. Bill
Clinton was one and of course the amazing
Muhammad Ali, who I met at the 2008 Ryder Cup at
Valhalla. As a boy I grew up watching this fantastic
boxer and sports personality. What can I say, he’s a
legend and the great man was voted the greatest
sportsperson of the millennium. That says it all.
You’ve made it to the palace, too?
Yes, I met Prince Philip at a royal reception at
Buckingham Palace, at an event to meet relatives
and wives of soldiers that had been killed. I was
invited because I get involved with charities whenever
I can and I’ve donated a lot of golf memorabilia
and golf gear, signed bags and Ryder Cup prints
from some of the top players to help various charities.
That’s a really great thing
about being in this privileged position
– you can give something back.
In 2009 I walked the 90 miles from
Loch Lomond to Turnberry with the
golf bag all the way, and raised
£70,000 for the Candlelighters
Childhood Cancer Trust and the
Darren Clarke Foundation Breast
Cancer Charity. It gave me a good
feeling to go to the children’s hospice
to hand over the £35,000
cheque and to try and help in some
way. I’ve just been contacted by the
Seve Ballesteros Foundation Cancer
Trust. I donated the winning World
Matchplay caddie vest, which was
the last time Seve won it of his five
matchplays in 1991. It raised £11,000 which was a
great effort for his foundation. It really feels like I'm
still helping him when he has gone!
What have been the highlights?
I’ve been unbelievably lucky to have such good fun
doing my job. Every day I get up and I look forward
to going to work. I have my own family, I have my
wife Lisa’s family and I have my family from the
tour. That’s the way I look at it, so many good people
around me, and having a fantastic time. The
downside is spending so much time away from
family and friends. Missing memorable moments
with my son (10) and daughter (9) over the years
while they’ve been growing up has been a massively
hard thing to stomach at times; not being at their
school sports days and family birthdays. It comes
with a price but the good far outweighs the bad.
I’ve managed to earn a good living for my family,
something I never thought we’d have. Here’s me, a
Yorkshire lad travelling the world and staying in
some unbelievable hotels. The St Regis Hotel in
Bangkok was particularly spectacular. Sometimes
I get to my room, throw my bags down and have
a chuckle to myself, just thinking how good is
this for a lad from Keighley! You know, where
did it all go wrong?
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine