From sleeping in bushes at the side of a motorway to becoming one of the best caddies in the world of golf, we caught up with Billy Foster just before he headed off to Whistling Straits to find out more about his four decades in the job.
How do you become one of the greatest caddies in golf? Having a dry sense of humour and a no nonsense out -look on life has certain been a benefit for Billy Foster. The unassuming Yorkshireman has worked for some of the best in the business over his 40 years on Tour and no other could put Seve and Tiger down on their CV. But before any of you failing golfers out there opt for a career change, life on the bag isn’t all about private jets and fast living. Most caddies earn five to 10 percent of their player’s winnings and have to fund the travel expenses out of their own pocket. So when your man misses the cut you get ten percent of nothing!
How do you manage all the travelling during the year?
Billy: It’s just been part and parcel of life, I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old. I started off getting busses from Bradford to London and sleeping on the bus, then you’d get on a train for two days to get to Portugal or southern Spain. You just learned to sleep on a washing line! You have to learn how to eat any food and sleep in any bed. I slept in a bush on the side of a motorway once trying to hitch a lift to Biarritz one year. It was a hard upbringing, those first few years caddying, because you couldn’t afford to do anything. You didn’t earn a lot. You just did it to travel and learn a bit more about the game. So, regarding flying on planes and getting your head down and then getting off and doing a job – it’s just part and parcel of what I’ve grown up to do. I don’t need your private jets and first-class cabins, I just get my head down, have a couple of G&Ts to knock myself out, get some sleep and then wake up and get on with it.
You have been traveling to Dubai since the Desert Classic started but what are your standout memories?
The two standouts would be Seve winning the Desert Classic at Emirates in 1992 and obviously Westwood winning the inaugural DP World Tour Championship and the Race to Dubai – it was like winning two tournaments on the same day.
Dubai’s always been a special place to me and one of my best mates, John Goodwin, who sadly died a couple of years ago, he always used to be there in front of the Emirates clubhouse playing the guitar and singing Neil Diamond songs. So,there’s lots of special memories and every time I go there I can still see him there singing ‘Sweet Caroline’.
If Seve was a better driver of the ball, do you think his chipping and short game wouldn’t have been as good?
Probably not, but he did grow up with just the one club and he used his imagination to feel shots. There is an argument to say that if he never missed greens he wouldn’t be chipping as much, obviously, but he had imagination like no other player I’ve ever worked for. He could see the shots and feel the shots, and, regardless, he would always be an unbelievable chipper.
What was your first memory of Dubai?
I think it was 1988, the first one. I was on the bag of Gordon Brand Jnr. We stayed downtown, right in the middle of town, which was obviously about 20 miles away from the golf course and it was just a two-lane highway full of camels and desert, with no buildings the whole way there. It’s incredible the way it’s changed.
From a playing perspective, how have the courses changes in those intervening years?
The Majlis at Emirates hasn’t really changed that much at all. It’s still the same layout. It’s one of those courses that isn’t really a bombers course because you’re hitting across a lot of fairways, with a lot of dog-legs, so it still plays very similarly to how it always has, to be quite honest.
You have managed to get Westwood and Fitzpatrick over the line at the Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates but how does it play compared to the Majlis?
Earth is one of those courses you need to play a few times. A lot of the greens you can’t see from the fairway – you can only see the top of the flag. So it plays different. If you play in the morning it’s hard to catch up, especially at the DP World Tour Championship.
In the morning there’s a bit of dew on the ground and it’s colder, so it plays a lot longer than when the leaders tee off at lunchtime. So you need to try and get off to a decent start in that tournament, otherwise you’re behind the 8-ball a little bit.
Do you have to recalculate yardages and the way you read the greens depending on whether it’s morning or afternoon play?
Yeah for sure, if the temperature is a lot hotter in the afternoon the ball is going to fly a bit further. In the morning it’s a bit colder there’s a bit of dew around so the ball could certainly go a club less. From the high heat of the afternoon to first thing in the morning could be two clubs difference.
Can you pre-calculate this or is it something you adapt to using your experience?
You get a natural feel for it through experience. You will get lads on the range using laser rangefinders or using the Trackman to see what numbers it’s throwing out, so they’ve got an idea of how many yards less the ball is flying. So it’s one or the other, and you just know through experience that it’s going to go less in the morning. If you’re in between clubs, you can always hit the longer one because in the morning it’s not flying as far.
Have you found Trackman a help, from your perspective?
I don’t read it, I’ve been out there 40 years now so I don’t get wrapped up in all the technology of it all and the terminology with it’s ‘uphills’ and ‘downhills’ that people allow for. People will say ‘oh this is 11 yards downhill’ but in my head it’s half a club downhill, I don’t tend to read too much into ups and downs so I don’t get too wrapped up in it, I leave that to Fitz because he’s clued up on it.
Is technology a hindrance for players, in some respects?
I think it’s helped a lot in certain ways but I think players read far too much into a lot of things as well, so it’s a bit of a Clint Eastwood movie really, it’s the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – it’s a bit of everything. There’s certainly been a lot of good, but I think you can read too much, with too many figures and facts being thrown at you. You’ve got to get back to playing the game and feeling the shots.
Do you think green books and maybe yardage books being taken away would challenge the players more to be creative?
Absolutely, yeah. The yardage books and green books now are so magnificent and so brilliant that you could turn up at a course and probably play it without having seen the course before, they’re that good. And it’s taken away the necessity to have a top caddy as such, because the information is so brilliant.
That’s why you’re seeing a lot of friends or ex-players, managers, girlfriends, wives, brothers, all coming out caddying because – do you need a caddy in the same way that you used to? No you probably don’t. You still need a decent caddy for certain situations. But certainly, with what we’ve been through with Covid, some guys are sometimes trying to save a few quid by taking friends on to be caddies, I can see that. And they can do that because the information is so brilliant – it allows them to do that.
Funniest memory of golf in the UAE?
That’s a good question. Nothing specific about Dubai off the top of my head, but there’s lot of funny things happening to us all around the world really. I’m struggling to think of one – I’ve a lot of good memories of Dubai obviously.
How’s your game?
I don’t play. Because I’m involved in it all the time the last thing I want to do when I come home is carry a golf bag around the golf course. I’ve only been playing three or four times a year for the last 15 years, and this year I haven’t had a round yet! I was a decent player as an amateur, I got offered a job as an assistant pro in 1990, and I accepted it. I’d been caddying for around eight years at the time and I thought ‘enough is enough now with the traveling’, so I accepted the role at Ilkley Golf Club, and then about four weeks before I started Seve asked me to work for him… so assistant pro or Seve Ballesteros, that wasn’t really much of a decision for me! And now 30 years later I’m still caddying.
You must have a strong bond with Pete Cowen being from Yorkshire but when do you first get to know each other?
I’ve known Pete going on 40 years because Pete was still playing when I started caddying, so I’ve known him what seems like forever. We’re similar! Both straight-talkers. We’re not there to be a players’ best friend, we’re there to do a job. And if you think something is wrong you’ve got to not be afraid to tell them what you think. It’s not a question of being blunt, you’re just being honest and saying what you think. If there’s a problem then you need to voice it and say if something isn’t good enough. It might come across as being a bit harsh at times but at the end of the day you’re there trying to help and make them be as good as they possibly can be. There’s no point in saying everything’s great and lovely if there’s problems, so you’ve got to address the situation. Take it by the scruff of the neck.
Any plans to hang the bag up, or do see yourself continuing for a while?
It’s in my blood! I’m a bit of a gypsy, obviously really. It’s a part of my life, going away and having your own space. So as long as I’m healthy and can command a decent job I’d like to think I could do another 4 or 5 years, and I’ll be 60 then and that would be enough I’d imagine.
Because it goes without saying that 40 years of carrying that bag around has delivered plenty of arthritis and aches and pains and what have you. So I’ve still got to have a bit of quality life with my missus when I hang my boots up. I don’t want to be like Fluff Cowan out there caddying at 70-odd! I’d like to do another 3/4/5 years at the top level if I can. But once I lose the opportunity of caddying for a top player that’ll be me done.
Where would you retire to?
I’ve never moved from Yorkshire, so it’d be there! I do have a little apartment in Austria in the mountains so I’d probably spend a bit of time there – a few weeks in the winter and a few in the summer.
When you get away from the game, how do you unwind?
You’re obviously away for weeks on end and when you come home there’s always stuff to do – you’re catching up on everything, answering emails that sort of thing. I do a bit of after dinner speaking, so I might organise a couple of those and there’s always a garden to sort out or the dogs to walk or a garage to sort out. There’s always something. I keep myself busy. I might go down to the local club for a couple of pints and a game of snooker, that sort of thing. My missus is the Lady Captain of the golf club next year so that’ll keep her busy.
Have you ever missed a tee time?
Touch wood, not yet! I was very close in Macao, off Hong Kong around 15 years ago with Darren Clarke. We both slept in. And I actually dragged him out of bed and just managed to scramble our way to the tee in time. But no, touch wood, I’ve never been late!
If you could change any rule in golf, what would it be?
The golf ball, because shot-making is finished and it’s really a bug-bear of mine. With technology, the golf clubs are too forgiving and the golf ball goes too far and you can’t shape it as much as you used to. So if you slice one, it might slice a few yards. Whereas 20 years ago it would slice 25 yards. You can’t shape shots, the great shotmakers over the years, like Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Ian Woosnam, Seve, the shots they used to hit, to shape them into flags – those days are gone. Now it’s just tee up and bomb it 300-350 yards and gouge a wedge 150 yards. It’s a shadow of the game it used to be, and it upsets me, to see how the game’s been destroyed. So the ball would be the one thing that needs arresting. Even if it doesn’t go quite as far, I’m not saying strip it back miles and miles, but you need to be able to shape it more. I’m not sure if it’s something to do with the dimples – the technology is beyond me, but certainly we need more shotmaking involved because it’s made the great players and the average players so much closer together. Before, the great players were the great players and now you get average players winning massive tournaments and Majors. That rarely used to happen.
How do you feel about shortening courses but making them more challenging?
Yes I’d get behind that all day long. Golf courses don’t need to be 8,000 yards.
Is there a course that stands out to you when you arrive there which is more aligned to course management, rather than just bombing it off the tee?
Hilton Head and Valderrama. Those are two that immediately come to mind. TPC Southwind in Memphis is a great golf course – not massively long but there’s a lot of trouble around and you can’t be bombing it 360 yards because you have to hit it to certain spots and shape shots into greens. Also, TPC Sawgrass, a brilliant golf course because you’ve got to get the ball in the right spot off the tee. For example favouring hitting it to one side of the fairway to give yourself a better angle to the green. The greens are small and it’s a shotmakers golf course.
From a work perspective, if you could pick one course in the world that you enjoy being on year after year, is there one that jumps to mind?
It’s TPC Sawgrass. First time I went there would have been in 1991 with Seve, so I’ve been going there for about 30 years. And it’s a testament to its greatness that it hasn’t had to change much over that span of time. With all the technology that’s evolving, you don’t need to change this course. And Valderrama is the same. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea because there’s trees in certain places that there probably shouldn’t be, but again, it’s about hitting it in the right spots and having the discipline to do that and stick to that course management. Hilton Head is a fantastic golf course with short par-3s which are very, very challenging.
We played the US Open at Oakmont in 2016 and on the Saturday, there was a par-3 that was 300 yards. There’d never been a par-3 like it, and it was rubbish. Four weeks later we’re at The Open Championship at Royal Troon and the Postage Stamp on the Saturday played 99 yards. And these guys are scratching their head on the tee, trying to chip a 9-iron into a 25mph wind to a tiny green – but they have to play a shot, and they’re making doubles and triples yet it’s only 99 yards. Yet a month earlier we’re hitting drivers and 3-woods to a 300 yard par-3 – it was absolute rubbish.
The Earth course is sometimes referred to as a bombers course, but Fitzpatrick has won there twice and you wouldn’t call him a bomber?
No, that comes down to course management and hitting the greens in the right spots and not getting too greedy and short-siding yourself, and being disciplined. Obviously Matt is a pretty good putter and when he got his chances he rolled a few in. But Matt isn’t overly short, he does get it out there with the average player, I would say. You also wouldn’t have Westy down as a bomber and he features on the leaderboard at that tournament every year, he was second last year at age 47.
Do you still stay in touch with players who you’ve worked for in the past?
Yeah I went to watch Newcastle play Leeds the other month with Westy.
Given the success you’ve had on the bag with players over the years, have you ever treated yourself to anything?
I’m not a flamboyant character, I don’t go out buying big flash cars or watches, I’m still fairly humble. At the end of the day I’ve got a nice house. I think the little apartment in Austria is probably the most extravagant thing.
How come you picked Austria?
I just love skiing, I love the mountains and the little village ambience. When you go to this village where my apartment is, it’s like turning your watch back 60 years, it’s just really rustic and full of quiet, respectful people. I like the quietness of the place, it’s not a busy resort. It’s almost like having my own private mountain on some days, you can take in the views, ski to a little cabin and have a goulash soup and a pint of the local brew. It’s just where I love to be.
Finally, if you were travelling and found yourself on the wrong side of town which player would you want by your side and why?
Probably Ernie Els, because he’s a massive unit and if there’s any trouble he’d sort them out I would imagine! You wouldn’t mess with Ernie.