The most optimistic prognosis when Billy Foster’s foot went one way and his right knee the other at the end of April last year was four to six weeks out of action. The worst was that he might miss the Open Championship in July.
He is still out of action and also out of a job. Alongside Lee Westwood, the pair amassed six Major top-three finishes, won nine times and got to World No 1 but the cruciate injury, picked up in the warm-up of a football match Foster was not even due to play in, has now cost him the bag of his great friend.
The disappointment is still obvious but the Yorkshireman is philosophical, close to full fitness and, you would expect, another top job. After all, at Augusta alone he has worked for Seve Ballesteros, Thomas Bjorn, Sergio Garcia, David Frost, Darren Clarke and Westwood. And it is easy to see why, for many, he is the best in the business due to a combination of meticulous attention to detail and, in his own words, being ‘a bit of a clown’.
His extended absence from the game allowed NCG the privilege of an lengthy audience with arguably the most respected caddy in the game. Over two hours at his home in Bingley, Foster revealed some of the secrets behind the most well-known but mystical course in the world – Augusta National.
His views were predictably insightful on how to tackle the unique challenges of this pristine piece of Georgian land. And then we got talking about some of the characters he has encountered there over the past 22 years – and he was equally frank and colourful in recalling these anecdotes. We begin with the course first, and how he began to familiarise himself with it when he first arrived back in 1991.
I learned everything about Augusta through caddying for Seve – his course management skills were second to none. My first ever day with him at Augusta was on the Saturday before and Seve played on his own and took seven hours to get round. He hit 10 tee shots, 25 approaches and 100 putts on every green and he had probably played in about 15 Masters by this stage. He was so professional.
It is ingrained in me now and, whoever I ever caddy for at Augusta, I will always see it through Seve’s eyes – particularly around the greens. The course has changed a lot length wise and cutting the grass into you, so it doesn’t run as far and you can’t bump and run chips as it will just dig in. The greens haven’t changed too much.
Before the round I will always go out and have a look at the pins to see where not to go. You can’t miss in some spots on every hole which is what makes Augusta so difficult and why players, on their first visit, don’t tend to do very well. It is unbelievably important to get on the right side of every flag. Most of it is in your head. You would keep notes from where they were the day before and where the wind was, where it pitched on the green and released or how far it spun back.
You would have notes from days or tournaments before on how far it is over a ridge or how much room there is from the flag to the back of the green, little crosses for the no-go areas, compass points off the tee or on the green for where the wind is coming from.
It swirls around a lot as it is deep down in a swale and there are a lot of trees. If it is blowing hard it’s easier, if it is a 10mph wind
then it can be really tricky. I have a red dot by the side of every green and that is where Rae’s Creek is.
If you ask the local caddies that’s where they say the grain runs towards so you have that in your head a little bit. It is also in the back of your mind where the grain is, which will affect how the ball reacts when landing. You want answers in your head before you get to the tee, I will be stood on the 3rd green not thinking whether he will hole the putt, rather where the wind is coming from on the 4th and how far it will be playing and will it be firm or soft.
It is a bit like a snooker player thinking about the black three shots ahead. So when you get to that tee and the player asks the question you have all the answers. And if we disagree it is up to me to give my reasons. It is no good saying ‘you hit your 7 iron between 170 and 180 yards’, you need to say he hits it 174 yards, 170 yards and you might be in the water.
The key is for the player to not hit the shot unless they are 100 per cent convinced, Seve would never hit a shot with doubt in his mind.
I learned everything about Augusta through caddying for Seve – his course management skills were second to none The Par 3 Holes
The 4th has been lengthened by probably 40 yards and can be as much as a wood if into the wind. It can swirl around a lot by the 3rd and the 4th and is difficult to gauge. Four threes here and you are picking up maybe two shots on the field. The 6th has two pin positions on the top plateau and, if you miss it, it will be a bogey. The 12th has got more and more difficult. The depth of the green is maybe 12 yards and, if you go over the green, it is very wet and fudgey and very easy to duff a chip. And it is very fast on the green as the grain runs towards the water so it is tough to chip it close.
The bunkers have got more severe, the front bunker is a lot deeper and there isn’t as much sand in there so it is very hard to keep the ball on the green. The wind is all over the place: it can be a 9 iron one moment and a 6 iron the next.
Your heart is in your mouth until it has actually landed. They have subtlely changed the 16th green over the years and it has a lot of smelly pin positions. Even the front left flag is hard as you can easily kick in the water. The back right flag can see you leaving a 50-footer for par. On Sunday it brings a hole-in-one into play or a putt where you are struggling to keep it on the green.
The Par 5 Holes
At the 13th some of the guys will hit a 3 wood as it is easier to hit a draw. The bigger hitters will just bomb it over the corner. If you don’t draw it you will run into the pine needles which isn’t a disaster. Sometimes it’s no bad thing not to have to hit a 4 iron with the ball 18 inches above your feet. They expect it to go left with the lie but so many times the player over compensates and hangs it out to the right which is a 15-yard longer carry resulting in a watery grave.
At the 15th it is a big advantage for the bigger hitters as you can have a 6 or 7 iron in. They seem to have made it a bit easier as the ball will now hold up on the bank. If you are pitching in you want to be down the left as it is flatter and the shot is coming up the green.