Billy Foster, the veteran caddie of recently crowned US Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, made history by joining an illustrious group of winners of the Association of Golf Writers “Outstanding Services to Golf” award.
The recognition for one of the good guys in the game broke the mould by putting a caddie front and centre for an award which was first presented in 1999.
Among the recipients are administrators including European Tour executives Ken Schofield and George O’Grady; renowned coaches John Jacobs and Pete Cowen, and superstar players Jack Nicklaus, Peter Alliss, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Tony Jacklin and Laura Davies.
A caddie? Not until this year. Arguably the most undervalued cohort in the professional game for more than a century, they can now look at Billy Foster and see his award as another step forward in gaining respect for their profession.
Foster, who hails from Bingley St Ives in Yorkshire, has caddied for 40 years. He can include Seve Ballesteros, Darren Clarke, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Thomas Bjorn, and Lee Westwood on his bagman CV.
Amazingly, his players never won a Major with Foster on the bag, until the hoodoo ended with Fitzpatrick’s success at Brookline in the US Open last June.
No wonder the tears erupted on the 18th that epic Sunday when the Sheffield native held off the challenge of America’s Will Zalatoris to claim the title. Foster admitted he had another tear in his eye when the AGW honoured him at St Andrews.
In typical down to earth manner, he gave an amusing and insightful acceptance speech but was mindful of the significance of the award.
“It just shows how far caddies have come, not second-class citizens anymore, so I’m very humbled by it all,” he said.
Of all the players and the big moments in his career two stood out: Thomas Bjorn in the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s and his five years with Seve Ballesteros. Ah, Bjorn. The Great Dane led by two shots with three holes to play and then came disaster on the par-three, 163 yards 16th which opened the door for Open debutant Ben Curtis to become a most unlikely champion.
That bunker from which he took three attempts to escape will haunt Bjorn as long as he lives but the temper tantrum on the 17th on day one also cost him dearly. The Dane failed to get out at his first attempt, bashed his club into the sand in frustration, and with a two shot penalty, signed for an eight.
Sunday, round 4. The par-3 16th. Bjorn had taken bogey on the 15th but still had a two shot lead.
Foster recalled: “You’ve got five foot to the right and it was an absolute graveyard, or you’d half of Kent to the left, so I’m telling him “TV tower on the left, middle of the green, 30 feet.. nowhere else.
“Thomas said, ‘Yeah, great.
“Then he hits it straight at the flag, put it in the bunker, took three to get out and loses by a shot.
“I thought about it every day for six months. Absolutely broke my heart.”
However, player and caddie had no time to mourn. Next up was the Irish Open at Portmarnock. Foster knew he had to set his own heartbreak aside and build up his boss. At dinner in Malahide, he kept pushing the positive vibes.
“I’d taken Thomas out to dinner and I was stroking him like an old dog, like an old Labrador, telling him how good he is. So he’s walking out feeling eight foot tall.”
“We’re walking down the street. I’ve made him feel like a great champion again.”
Gibney’s pub beckons. Foster suggests a nightcap. “So we’ve gone through the saloon doors and the usual suspects are there – Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, Ian Woosnam, a dozen caddies.
“Well, the place goes silent, because Thomas has just cocked up the biggest golf tournament on earth.
“Nobody knows what to say to him.
“Darren Clarke chirps up: “Have you seen the draw for tomorrow, Thomas?
Thomas says: “No, are we playing together?
“Darren says: “No. You’re playing with Doug Sanders and Jean Van de Veldt you clumsy twat!”
A moment’s stunned silence, then a huge blast of laughter erupted.
Bjorn went close that week at Portmarnock before losing the title in a playoff to Michael Campbell.
As for Seve, Foster has many stories but one of his favourites was the 1987 Ryder Cup in Muirfield Village, Ohio, where Europe were the underdogs and he was partnered by another Spaniard, the 21-year old rookie Jose Maria Olazabal.
When it came to the Ryder Cup Ballesteros hated the Americans.
Said Foster: “He didn’t particularly like Tom Kite or Curtis Strange and now we’re drawn against them with a young kid by the name of Jose Maria Olazabal.
“So we’re walking to the first tee and Seve puts his arm around Jose and says: “Jose, listen to me. You’re the best player in Europe. You will win many, many major championships. But for today you just concentrate on your game and I will take care of these sons of bitches!
“So they all tee off. They’re all in the fairway. Jose is on the green, 40 feet.
“The two Septic Tanks are on the green about 30 feet. Seve went for the pin, back left, pulls it left in the shite.
“Now his head’s off. It’s Jose’s first ever Ryder Cup and now he’s put him under so much pressure.
“And he says to him “Jose, listen to me. When we get to the green you putt first and maybe you make the four and I go for the chip-in.
“So, they get to the green. Jose rolls his putt from 40 feet maybe three feet past the hole and he marks it. Puts it (the ball) in his pocket.
“Seve goes to him and says “You finish and make the four and I go for the chip-in.
“Jose goes: ‘Sorry’, puts the ball down. Just about to step in and Curtis Strange goes: “Jose, we don’t want you to finish because if me and Tom putt past the hole the ball could go in your footprints. We’d rather you waited to finish.”
That left Olazabal with a problem. He could have the Yanks on his back if he failed to comply with their request, but then he would be ignoring the mercurial Seve’s plan.
“Seve goes: Jose, what’s going on over there, eh?
“Curtis Strange don’t want me to finish because I could be stepping in his line,” says Olly.
“So Seve goes: “Ah, don’t worry about that son of a bitch. I go ahead and chip in anyway.’
“So Seve goes back, chips it up, it lands on the green, trickles down and drops in.
“(Seve goes) absolutely mental. Goes up on the green, picks Jose’s marker up, says “See, I tell you.’ And he walks 15 yards across the green and roars: “Any problems now Curtis?!!
“But that was Seve…”