This year marks the 30th anniversary of Billy Foster's first visit to Augusta National.
The Yorkshire caddie went to the Masters on the bag of his childhood hero and two-time former champion Seve Ballesteros.
Since then, he has caddied for several more players in the opening men's major of the season, getting to know more or less every blade of grass on the iconic Georgia course in the process.
Ahead of his latest visit - on the bag of English star Matt Fitzpatrick - Foster shared his favourite Masters memories with bunkered.co.uk...
What do you remember of your first trip back in 1991?
It’s a special place. You arrive in Augusta off an eight-lane highway and you’ve got your usual Burger King, McDonald’s and Denny’s, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘What’s so special about this place?’ But as soon as you go through those gates, it’s like Alice In Wonderland. It’s a country within its own state. It’s weird. Everything’s just so pristine. And certainly to set eyes on the other side of the clubhouse, and you look over the 18th and down into the valley towards Rae’s Creek, yeah, it would bring a tear to a glass eye the first time you witness it. The thing that struck me most was the peace and tranquility of the place. The first time I saw it would have been the Friday or Saturday prior to the week of the Masters, so there was hardly anybody there. There were just birds tweeting, the sun was out and the azalea bushes were in full bloom, so yeah, it was a very special sight.
It must have been extra special to go there on the bag of Seve Ballesteros.
Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been to every Open Championship since 1975 at Carnoustie. I went there as a nine-year-old boy and I’ve not missed one since, so, growing up, my idol was Seve Ballesteros, like most guys my age. So, to think that I had the opportunity to work for him for five years is mind-boggling to say the least, never mind to rock up with him at Augusta National for my first Masters where he was a two-time champion. Along with the Open, it was his favourite tournament in the world. It meant so much to him and he tried like a bear. I’ll never forget his first practice round that year. It was just him, on his own, and it took us seven hours. He must have hit 50 chips and 100 putts on every hole, as well as looking for his balls every other hole, too. I’ll never forget it. Seven hours. I was pretty beat up by the end of it but it was special and a great honour, not only to caddie at the Masters with the painter and decorator suit on but to have ‘BALLESTEROS’ written on the back of it.
Is there any pressure that comes with caddying for a former champion at Augusta National?
The Masters brings its own pressure. It’s a great tournament and you’ve got to be pretty steely to cope with that atmosphere on the back nine on the Sunday. The margins for error are so minute. You know, the way the wind swirls in the trees. The flag on the previous green could be blowing one way but the one on the hole you’re playing is blowing the opposite way, so you look up at the flags up by the clubhouse and they’re blowing another way entirely. You’re honestly giving it your best educated guess at times, especially when you get to 11 and 12. And then there are the slopes on the greens which are so severe that, at times, it’s as though you’ve got three or four minute greens on one. You could hit two shots that land within a foot of each other but the actual result could be 80 to 100 feet of a difference. It never stops you thinking. If you switch off for one second, it kicks you in the gonads.
You must walk off absolutely exhausted, both physically and mentally.
Let me tell you, every caddie’s favourite hole at Augusta is the 19th, because you know you’ve got a cold beer waiting for you after taking a non-stop grilling for four or five hours. But yeah, you’re right, the physical demands of walking the golf course with three or four stone on your back makes you tired but, mentally, I’d say it’s the most challenging week of the year. You constantly have to be on the ball. It wears you out. You’re always happy to put the pin in on the 72nd hole and still have a job, that’s for sure.
What kind of golf course is Augusta National like to learn compared to other golf courses you go to?
It’s a process of elimination, really. I mean, I was very fortunate to work for Seve for my first five Masters during which I got to see pretty much every blade of grass on the property and learned from the mistakes he made. Then I did ten years with Darren Clarke, and another ten years or so with Lee [Westwood] after that. You never stop learning. There’s always a bounce or a place you hit it that makes you go, ‘I’ve never seen that before’. Like any player or caddie, you learn by your mistakes over the years, and you learn not to make them again in a hurry. But you’re always learning. Every year you go back, you’ll pick up a little tip here or there or be part of something that gets your attention.
One of the big things about Augusta is that there’s no green-reading books. Some players love that, some players don’t. As a caddie, what’s your take?
I think it’s cheating and they should be banned. End of. Get rid of them. It’s not only the greens books but yardage books today are so brilliant that you can turn up to a tournament having never seen or played or walked the course before. It puts everything on a plate for you. You know, the pitches, and the run-outs, and the elevation changes. They’re so brilliant that it’s brought everybody closer together. You know, if you were caddying back in the day and you went out and did your homework and drew your own yardage book, you were one step ahead of the rest. It gave you an advantage. That’s pretty much gone now. Obviously, you’ve still got to do your own notes to a certain degree but it’s made it much easier for everybody else. And, as far as greens books are concerned, surely your eyes are part of the game to make you read putts better than anybody else. And to give everyone diagrams with arrows pointing everywhere that the green is breaking, it’s bullshit. It should never have been allowed in the first place.
Obviously, tradition is a big part of The Masters. Are there any caddie traditions?
No, nothing. We’re very much part of the backroom, as such. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the very first time I went there, there weren’t even doors on the cubicles in the caddie toilets for when you were going for a ‘Tom Tit’. Things have improved a lot since then in pretty much every sense. We get looked after far superior these days. But regarding traditions, nah, not really. You go, do your job, get back to your house, and have a couple of cold ones. I’ve actually stayed in the same house for over 20 years now. It was owned by a nun called Mrs Culpepper. It has a little out-building in the garden that she stayed in for the week, and two or three of us caddies would stay in the main building. She actually passed away about five or six years ago but she left the house to her niece on the condition that she continued to rent it to us for the week of The Masters. She can stay there 51 weeks of the year but, for that one, she has to hand over the keys so I’m guessing we must have made a good impression!
The white caddie overalls. How do you feel about wearing them?
Well, let me ask you this – would you want to wear a thick cotton boilersuit when it’s 80 degrees and you’ve got to walk five miles with four stone on your back? So no, I’m not really a big fan of it but it is what it is. It’s part of the tradition, it’s part of the rules and so you just have to get on with it. I’d like to think they could perhaps come up with a lighter material to use for them at some stage but, at the end of the day, it’s The Masters and so I’m not going to lose sleep over it. I’m just glad we don’t have to wear it every week.
The champion gets the Green Jacket, as we know. But what about the caddies?
We get the green bottles [laughs].
Like we discussed at the start, it’s 30 years now since your first Masters. What’s the best memory you’ve got from all those trips to Augusta?
I’d probably have to say my very first one with Seve. Don’t get me wrong, I got some right rollickings from him that week. You know, ‘Why I listen to you? You are the worst caddie I ever have’. But it was all a great experience. I remember him being stood at the top of the hill on the ninth after hitting it over the back of the green. I was 30 yards away from him and he was screaming at me. ‘Billy, Billy, you sonofmybitch, why I pick you’. It was one of those ones where you just want your mum. But honestly, they were all great experiences. Apart from that, obviously Westie had some great chances, finishing second to Mickelson [in 2010] and Danny [Willett, in 2016] and it was a great thrill to be in contention those years. Just a shame we couldn’t quite get it done.
You’ve had a front row seat to some incredible Masters moments, so what’s the best shot you’ve ever seen at Augusta National?
I’m not sure about the best but I could tell you the worst no bother.
Go for it.
Tiger Woods on the second hole playing with Darren Clarke in 2005. He hit so far behind it, I reckon I could have laid down in the divot with a headstone at the back of me. It went way left, about 60 yards into the trees by the eighth green, and it ended up in a ditch. Unplayable. He dropped it out for three and then hit a 2-iron onto the green to about 100 feet. The pin was back left and he was on the middle right – and he holed it for a par… and ended up winning the tournament in a playoff. Unbelievable. But the best? You know, you’d be hard pressed to argue against Bubba Watson’s wedge that he snap-hooked around the trees and onto the green to beat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff in 2012. That would certainly be right up there.
Finally, everybody who has been to Augusta has a favourite spot on the property. Where’s yours?
Under the Oak Tree outside the clubhouse after you’ve finished. Preferably with a nice cold bottle of beer, knowing you’ve survived at least one more day. There’s nowhere better.
This feature first appeared in issue 183 of bunkered. For our latest brilliant subscription offer, click here.