High on the moor above Bingley, battered by the ravages of an embittered winter that refuses to recede, a bulldozer is about its business of clearing the car park of snow. All about is blanketed white and to the east, from where the flurries keep coming, it is no longer possible to distinguish hill from a pewter sky. Inside, the bar of Bingley St Ives Golf Club is thinly populated: a three-ball tucking into chip butties and, set apart, a figure sitting alone by a window watching the snow come down. This is Brontë country, a landscape of arresting beauty in high summer, but in winter, as Heathcliffe’s lot in Wuthering Heights tells us, no place for broken souls to heal.
We are days from the opening tee shot at the Masters, 11 months on from the day Billy Foster snapped a ligament in his knee playing comedy football with his mates. There was humour aplenty in the hours that followed. You daft bugger, Billy, hurt without kicking the bloody ball. And then weeks and months of escalating misery, the like of which only those with serious injury can know.
“I went along to watch. The lads were having a kick-around before the game, which I joined in, a bit of a stray pass which I ran for. When I planted my foot it went in a bit of a hole and my knee went the other way, simple as that. I thought I might be out two weeks. Then when I found it would be six to eight I were nearly in tears. And then a season-wrecker; I was distraught.”
Forget the loss of earnings, which is brutal enough for a caddie with no safety net to ease the strictures of unemployment, it is the gradual erosion of esteem and stature, the remorseless encroachment of doubt and despair that attends throughout the long hours sitting immobile on the sofa while the world rushes on by. The injured caddie is soon the forgotten caddie. The game moves on.
His employer, Lee Westwood, for whom twice in the past three years Foster might have carried the winning bag at the Masters, had a career to pursue, balls to hit, trophies to win. Sorry, Billy, I’m going to have to let you go.
Foster is not far away now from a return, weeks he estimates, enough time to settle his mind as much as his knee before he slings the bag over his shoulders once more. But the Foster we see will not be the caddie we knew. The parting from Westwood hurt in a way that even surprised him. He understood completely, sympathised with his old boss, but did not reckon on the emotional ransacking and sense of devastation that would accompany the parting. Like bereavement, what was once a staple in your life is suddenly gone, leaving only silence behind.
Foster snapped his anterior cruciate ligament. It required reconstruction and three operations, one to repair the meniscus he damaged in January while walking down stairs. “It has been a testing time, a financial and personal disaster. The hardest thing is the solitary confinement, lying on a couch for months on end with your leg in an ice machine watching Homes Under The Hammer and Jeremy Kyle. That is enough to consider the beams, I’ll tell you, properly mentally challenging. You might be out for a couple of weeks falling off a barstool, but you never dream you’ll be out for 12 months. I’ll tell you what, it makes you appreciate what you had.”
With Westwood he had plenty, playing a huge part in the rise to world No 1 of the Worksop player, particularly the pre-Dubai address six months after taking possession of Westwood’s bag as the Race to Dubai reached its 2009 climax.
Westwood was in a four-way shakedown to top the European money list with Martin Kaymer, Ross Fisher and Rory McIlroy. Westwood had shot 65 on the Saturday of the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China, and according to Foster “would have been two up on God”, over the opening four holes on Sunday. Then Foster noticed a change. “He was playing brilliantly, then coming off the fourth he looked up at the leaderboard and saw McIlroy was seven under after nine. After that he struggled with his game. I never said anything at the time.
“We rocked up in Dubai. It’s the Tuesday night beach party. I’ve had a couple and I say to Lee: ‘Can I have a word?’ ‘Sure Billy, what is it?’ I mentioned what happened in China. Frankly, I told him what I thought. I said: ‘There are four guys can win this. There’s Rory McIlroy, won one tournament in his life, a 19-year-old kid. Afraid of him? There is Martin Kaymer, he’s been out with a broken foot for weeks and won three times in his life. Scared of him? And then there is Ross Fisher. Scared of him?’ I said: ‘You are Lee Westwood. You’ve won 40 tournaments around the world. You were one of those guys like Ballesteros or Woods, soon as your name came on the board it was ‘effing Westwood’. You are still the same Lee Westwood, aren’t you? Well, what are you effing worried about? You get out there and bully them.’ He went out, played unbelievably all week, and won it.”
From there it was a one-way ticket to the top of the world rankings. In their time together, Westwood recorded eight top-10 major finishes, including four top-threes and was twice runner-up. Player and caddie appeared intuitively bonded. They saw the world and the game the same way, dosed up on the kind of blunt candour that seems to flourish in the North.
Westwood kept the position open for six months following Foster’s injury before firing the bullet in October last year. Though Foster understood the rationale, it was a termination nonetheless.
“The split was unbelievably disappointing. I’ve said it before but if felt like my missus had run off with my best mate; devastated me. We were such great friends, had a great laugh on the golf course, same wavelength, same sense of humour, and very successful. It was probably the favourite job I’ve had.
“I can’t blame Lee for moving on. I’m big enough and brave enough to accept that. It just dragged on for months and months and just as I thought I was about to see the finishing line it was like having the legs kicked from under me. That is what hurt.”
Foster has had offers already. Indeed, Westwood’s former coach Pete Cowen called during our interview to check if a rumour was true, that Foster had done a deal. “I thought you were calling to see if I needed owt, Pete. Ten grand would just about do it. You OK for that? No, OK. No, Pete, I’ve not done anything yet. But won’t be long now. Tell them I’m getting there.”
The Masters is the first real stress point of the season and amounts to a cull for many a caddie on the wrong end of the boss’s wrath. “There are 50 guys going to the Masters thinking they are going to win, 49 are coming away Sunday night blaming somebody. The caddie is No 1 in the firing line; if it’s not him it’s the coach, the manager, and then the wife gets it, because someone has to pay. Mentally you can’t switch off or it’s a triple bogey. Physically it is unbelievably demanding, something that does not come across on TV. If you finish 72 holes around Augusta and you’re still in a job you feel like you’ve swum the Channel.”
Foster was five years with Seve Ballesteros, has worked with Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia as well as Westwood. Of late he has turned his dry Yorkshire wit to the art of after-dinner speaking, but while there is a chance of a bag out there, the black-tie business will have to wait.
“The No 1 thing that makes a good caddie is a good golfer. There are dozens doing the same job as me. I just go out there and try to enjoy it, be myself. I hope a good job will come along, but I know I’m not guaranteed anything. I’ve had a few offers. I’d like to work for a bunch of different guys until the right bag comes along. And when it does there will be no more crying over a missed putt from three feet. Try lying on a couch for 12 months, mate. Get on with it.”
Might that be with Westwood? Foster is mindful that there is a man on the bag, Mike Kerr, a good caddie, but should the call come… “I’d take the call. Of all those I have worked for, Lee and maybe Sergio Garcia are tee to green the best, and arguably over the past five years the best of anybody. Lee is a fantastic player.”
Foster will be in your front rooms from Friday talking the nation around Augusta as a pundit on Sky’s Masters Breakfast. None in that studio will know the place better.
Best shot: Seve was the master
Best shot by an employer at the Masters? Seve Ballesteros, on whose bag Billy Foster made his Augusta debut.
“Seve’s shot at the par-three fourth is up there with the best I’ve ever seen. The pin was front right. He shanked a three-iron short and right towards the bushes. He has to clear the bunker to hit the green. If he hits the perfect shot it lands by the hole and runs off the edge of the green. Bear in mind he never used a lob wedge; his maximum loft was 56 degrees. He opened the face as much as he could, swung it about 100mph, it’s gone up his nostrils, 100ft in the air and landed six inches over the bunker in the fringe, trickled out two feet from the hole.”
Best after-dinner tale: Seve again
Which tale gets the biggest laugh on the after-dinner speaking tour? You guessed it, a Seve one.
“He was playing with Tony Johnson in Holland, Noordwijk, seventh hole. It’s a blind tee shot over the hill and a dog-leg around the corner. They both tee off. One ball ends up blocked by a tree, the other is five yards further on with a clear shot to the green.
“Tony walks to the ball behind the tree, sees a sprinkler about two yards away, goes across and stretches his foot way out. ‘Seve, I’m stood on this sprinkler. Is there any chance of a free drop?’ Seve walks across and says: ‘Tony, my friend, I cannot give you a drop, it’s not your natural stance. I’m really sorry, my friend, but I can’t.’
“Tony said: ‘Good. That’s your ball. Mine is up there’.”