Brilliance, b****ckings and black bananas - When Billy met Seve

Seve Ballesteros And Billy Foster 1

Billy Foster was in absolutely no doubt.

There was no shot. 

None. 

The only thing he could see was trouble, and lots of it. 

Branches, bricks and out of bounds.

There was a tournament on the line and, with his boss having just birdied five holes on the bounce to catapult himself into contention, he wasn’t prepared to let him blow it now by risking an improbable – scratch that, impossible – recovery.

Just one problem. His boss wasn’t listening.

Seve Ballesteros rarely did.

It was September 5, 1993, and the final round of the European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland. Seve was doing what Seve was apt to do: making a charge for the title. Five holes earlier, he had been five shots behind and seemingly out of the tournament.

Standing on the 72nd hole, he had somehow muscled his way into the mix. Still, he needed yet another birdie, a sixth in a row, to have any hope of catching the leader, England’s Barry Lane.

It was the worst possible time for him to hit one of his worst drives of the day, an ugly push that went 50 yards right and came to rest just a few paces below an eight-foot concrete wall surrounded by pine trees.

“I get there just before him and turn to see him coming over with his arms outstretched in a ‘how bad is it?’ kind of gesture,” says Foster. “I say, ‘It’s dead. Chip it out sideways and wedge it on the green. You can still make par and win the tournament.’

“He’s not having it. Next thing I know, he’s down on his hands and knees. Then he’s up and peering over the wall. He tells me he thinks he’s spotted a tiny chink of light in one of the trees that he thinks he can thread his ball through. I say to him, ‘What are you on about? You’ve lost the plot. Chip it out sideways, wedge it on, make your par.’ He says, ‘No no, Billy, I think I have a shot. Come have a look.’ 

"I have a look at where he’s pointing and, honestly, all I can see is fucking danger. Genuinely, I’m thinking he’s going to hit the wall and the ball’s going to fly back, club him between the eyes and kill him. And if that somehow doesn’t happen, it's probably going to clip a branch and come down the other side of the wall, which is out of bounds, and that’s that. Game over.”

Again, Foster pleads with him to chip out sideways. Again, Seve isn’t interested. He shoos his caddie away to get him a yardage.

“I’m not happy at all so I just give him my best guess. On my kids’ lives, I never got him a proper number. ‘One hundred and thirty,’ I tell him. He says, ‘Okay, okay. Give me my pitching wedge.’

Seve Ballesteros And Billy Foster 2

“I decide to try one last time. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘You’re Seve Ballesteros, not Paul fucking Daniels.’ 

"He waves a hand at me dismissively. ‘Why you put doubt in my mind? I am the player, you are the caddie. Piss off, ey? Carry the bag. Go.’ He sends me away and I remember just being stood at the side of the fairway thinking, ‘What the hell is he playing at?’”

In the seconds that followed, Foster enjoyed a front row seat to something truly spectacular.

“I’m standing well out of the way – something like eighty yards from him – and I can remember seeing this puff of dust fly up. I’m listening out for it hitting trees but I don’t hear a thing. Next thing, the ball appears, flying through the air, over these 80-foot pines and it’s heading straight at the green.

“As I’m looking at it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m watching the greatest golf shot that’s ever been hit.’

“In the end, it comes up just short of the green. Maybe if I’d given him a proper yardage he’d have got it on. Not that it matters – he chips in for birdie. It was unbelievable. Honestly, 99% of golfers wouldn’t have had the imagination to see the shot, never mind execute it. That’s what made him such a genius.”

It almost didn’t matter that Lane held on to win the tournament and deny Ballesteros what would have been a 48th victory on the European Tour. Foster’s enduring memory of that day, of that week, is not that they didn’t win. It’s that shot.

“Seve was the best shot-maker who ever lived,” he adds. “No question. You’d see moments of genius on almost a daily basis. There wasn’t a week that went by where your jaw didn’t drop at least once and you’d be left thinking, ‘How the fuck has he done that?’ To have the imagination to see some of the shots he hit – never mind pull them off – was a remarkable gift.”

Seve Ballesteros Shot Over A Wall In Switxerland

Foster spent five years caddying for Seve. Having started out as an apprentice joiner with his dad, getting sacked “at least three times a week”, the Yorkshireman took up caddying in 1993.

“I basically just wanted to set off, travel for a couple of years, see Europe and learn a bit more about golf to improve my own.”

In the middle of 1990, his eighth year on tour, and having been to two Ryder Cups with Scotland’s Gordon Brand Jnr (including Europe’s historic win at Muirfield Village in 1987), he decided enough was enough. It was time to settle down. He accepted a job as an assistant pro at Ilkley Golf Club in North Yorkshire and gave Brand Jnr his notice.

At the start of October, in one of their final events together, they were playing in the Mercedes German Masters where they had David Feherty and Seve for company in the first two rounds.

“Going down the second hole on the Friday, I was way ahead of everybody else because it was a steep hill,” recalls Foster. “Suddenly, I felt a breath on my shoulder. It was Seve. He said to me, ‘What are you doing next season?’ I explained I was retiring from caddying and that I was taking up a job as an assistant. He said, ‘No, no, no. You are too young to retire. I’m looking for a caddie for next season.’ I went, ‘Oh right’ and kept on walking. The next 16 holes, my mind was spinning and, at the end of the round, everybody shook hands and we all went our own way.

“That night, I remember lying on the bed in my hotel room thinking, ‘You are some twat, you. Your boyhood hero has asked you if you want to work for him and you haven’t even given him an answer.’”

The next morning, when he arrived at the golf course, Foster immediately went looking for the Spaniard.

“As I got there, he had just teed off,” he says. “Obviously, these were the days of no internet and no mobile phones so I wrote my name and address on a piece of paper, ran up the first hole and waited for him as he came off the green.

Seve Ballesteros And Billy Foster 5

“I handed him the note and said, ‘If you want to bring me out of retirement, this is where you’ll find me.’ The next week, a letter arrived at my parents’ house. I’ve still got it. It’s framed in my office. Severiano Ballesteros Sota. October 9, 1990. It says, ‘I’m writing to you regarding our conversation at the German Masters for you to caddie for me next year. I’ve been watching you and I like your attitude as a caddie. Here are my conditions.’ 

"He then spent the three paragraphs explaining what I could and couldn’t do. ‘The player is always right’, ‘No arguing’, ‘Don’t speak to the press’, that kind of thing. It struck the fear of God in me right away but when you’re faced with the choice of either being an assistant pro or caddying for the great Severiano Ballesteros, well, it was quite an easy decision.

“I’d been to every Open Championship since 1975 when my parents took us on holiday to Scotland and, like pretty much every young kid who was into golf at the time, I idolised Seve. Suddenly, I’d gone from being worshipping him to, in the space of 16 years, getting the chance to work with him. It was surreal. I remember thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was unbelievably humbling.”

Foster’s first week on the job was the Doral-Ryder Open in Florida at the start of March 1991.

“I remember being sat there that first morning waiting for him to show up,” he recalls. “Pete Coleman, who was Bernhard Langer’s caddie at the time, was sitting with me. Pete had seen and heard some experiences of Seve and, God bless him, for some reason he decided that now was the time to tell me all about them. Not that I needed telling. I was under no illusions as to how difficult the job might be. I don’t mind admitting I was nervous. It was a bit like sitting outside the headmaster’s office waiting to get a bollocking but you’ve not done owt wrong. It was intimidating.

“Anyway, he shows up and that first day on the job, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Bear in mind, I’d been used to going to European Tour events in the likes of Spain, Germany, Portugal and what not, where you’d have five men and a dog walking round with you. Well, there was none of that there. Seve was playing a skins game against Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Ray Floyd. There must have been ten-thousand people following us. I was blown away. From the shithouse to the penthouse overnight. It was intense. I’d never seen the likes of it before. But that’s the way it was with Seve. He was a huge draw. People wanted to see him.”

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