Nobody has been involved in more Ryder Cup matches than Billy Foster. One stands out.
Darren Clarke’s participation in 2006 had been in serious doubt following the death of his wife, Heather, just six weeks earlier. Ask Foster, the esteemed caddie, whether it is hard to pick a memorable moment from a Ryder Cup connection stretching back to 1987 and the answer is immediate.
“It is not at all,” Foster says. “Hugging Darren Clarke on the 16th green on Sunday at the K Club in 2006 after he won in the singlers. It was an incredible moment. I have been very fortunate to win 45 tournaments with different players but that will go down as the most special moment of my caddying career.
“Walking on to that 1st tee is the only time I have ever shed a tear on a golf course. I have had some heartbreaking moments, Thomas Bjørn taking three to get out of the bunker at Royal St George’s [in the 2003 Open], and didn’t even cry then but 2006 brought tears to my eyes.”
Clarke had sought Foster’s counsel on whether to accept one of just two available picks from the captain, Ian Woosnam. “He phoned me about three weeks before, telling me he had been offered a wildcard and asking 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 cope with the added emotion and pressure. I told him Heather would want 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 compelling. This week at Marco Simone, where he is on the bag for Matt Fitzpatrick, is Foster’s 15th caddying in the biennial clash. It isn’t just players who are affected by 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,” Foster says. “You feel like you want to be sick in the middle of the golf course.”
He has also taken on backroom roles. The most “incredible” game he sampled ended with Fred Couples and Paul Azinger finishing all square with Seve Ballesteros and José María Olazábal in 1991. The Spanish duo were Ryder Cup icons. Foster, while working for Ballesteros, was in awe of their passion.
“They were like two junkyard dogs,” says the Yorkshireman. “They wanted to win at all costs and Seve would win at all costs. He wanted to slice their chests open, rip their heart out and give it back on the 18th green. I used to call them demented rottweilers, frothing at the mouth, straining at the leash going on to the 1st tee.”
Ballesteros was especially ferocious when it came to all things American. “You have never seen anyone with so much passion or hatred,” Foster adds. “And hatred is the word. You don’t see hatred in a Ryder Cup any more but 25-30 years ago it was very much ‘them against us.’ Seve felt aggrieved in a lot of ways about his career in the US and he hated them. That edge, that hatred has disappeared.”
One can almost sense a tinge of disappointment. Still, the harmony of Team Europe in this environment runs deep. “We are a band of brothers,” says Foster. “People who don’t necessarily get along with each other are best mates that week. We have great fun out there but you go through so many different emotions. Those brothers are there for you if you have had a shit time – and if it’s time to celebrate, there’s no celebration like it.
“The Ryder Cup makes the majors look like monthly medals. Atmosphere wise, 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 it can get back on its feet because it has taken a few kickings, which has been sad to see.”
There have been hilarious episodes. In 2004 at Oakland Hills, he stole Bjørn’s buggy during a practice session. The trouble was, Foster and his clubs duly fell out of the cart. “From my knees, all I could see was the buggy careering towards the crowd,” Foster says. “I was thinking of broken legs, lawsuits. It was like the parting of the Sea of Galilee as the buggy went racing through the crowd, into the trees. Everybody found it hysterical … apart from Clarkey, who went absolutely mental at me.”
Foster shrugs off the scale of the US celebrations at Brookline in 1999, which drew harsh criticism from some in the European camp. “I could understand it,” he says. “You just get on with it. They played the better golf.”
He is more expansive on the situation of Lee Westwood, another former employer, and other high-profile European golfers who find themselves ostracised from the Ryder Cup after their switch to LIV. It does not sit properly with Foster.
“It is a shame,” says the 57-year-old. “I can see the other side, I can see everyone else’s point of view. Mine is that you look at what goes on in that locker room, you see the performances of certain players – Westwood, García, Poulter – and what they have brought to the team. They have been inspirational. I think it’s very sad that they won’t be involved any more as things stand. Those three guys would be your next three captains, no doubt.”
Fitzpatrick, who won the US Open alongside Foster last summer, is strangely yet to win a Ryder Cup. Foster believes the Englishman has been “unfortunate” 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 dictates this is a man worth listening to.