It cannot be easy living in the shadow of your best friend, but Mark Foster embraced the role behind Lee Westwood without a trace of envy or self-admonition. Both were born and raised in the Nottinghamshire town of Worksop, forming both a tight bond and a healthy competitive rivalry during their formative years through their mutual passion for golf.
Two years older than Foster, Westwood won the British Youths Championship in 1993 and turned professional a few months before his younger friend won the first of his two English Amateur Championships with an English Amateur Stroke Play Championship sandwiched in between for good measure.
Foster was a rising star in the amateur game, playing for Great Britain and Ireland in the victorious 1995 Walker Cup Team at Royal Porthcawl alongside future European Tour winners Padraig Harrington and David Howell, as Westwood was carving a name for himself as a professional. It seemed only a matter of time before Foster would join the professional ranks and provide his mate with a serious challenge to be considered Worksop's finest.
However it did not quite work out like that. Westwood's career ignited and took off into orbit. Foster's stalled on the launch pad. The man affectionately known as ‘Fozzy’ secured a European Tour card at the Qualifying School Finals in 1996 but played only eight tournaments after suffering a back injury which required surgery.
From there, Foster's career was the equivalent of climbing a greasy pole. Fully fit again, he missed the cut at the 1999 Qualifying School Finals and was first reserve in 2000 but did not hit a shot in anger. Meanwhile, Westwood had become a multiple winner on The European Tour International Schedule, earning his Ryder Cup spurs and various other accolades around the world with wins in Australia, China, Japan, South Africa and the United States.
By 2002, however, Foster had established himself. Winner of the European Challenge Tour Rankings in 2001, he was a fully exempt Member of The European Tour in 2002 and kept his card by finishing 93rd on the Volvo Order of Merit. So it was, by rights, he lined up alongside Westwood in the dunhill championship at Houghton Golf Club in Johannesburg.
For years, Foster had been on hand to congratulate or commiserate with Westwood after a tournament, offering a handshake or an arm around the shoulder. However as Foster played his way into only the second six-man play-off in European Tour history, it was payback time.
Paul Lawrie, with a round of 65, was the first player to finish on 273, 15 under par, soon after defending champion Justin Rose, also with a 65, had come up just short on 275. A bold defence, but too little, too late.
Then Trevor Immelman, winner of the South African Airways Open the previous week, eagled the last to get to 15 under before Anders Hansen, the 2002 Volvo PGA Championship winner, repeated the feat. The trio were joined by Doug McGuigan, the leader with two holes remaining, who finished double bogey, birdie, before Bradford Vaughan and Foster both made par at the last after having had one shot at winning the title.
Foster, facing the greatest test of his career against the quintet, was nervously hitting a few practice putts as the final cards were handed in.
A familiar figure shuffled across the green and offered a few words of advice.
“Whatever you do, enjoy it,” said Westwood, a veteran of two successful sudden-death play-offs. Foster responded that he would try. “No,” retorted Westwood. “You have to make sure you enjoy it.” Lee and his father, John, wished him good luck and left 27 year old Foster to his own devices.
Enjoy it he did, as one of the most enthralling finishes to a European Tour event unfolded over Houghton's 18th hole.
The play-off was gripping and full of possibilities. Could Immelman become the first person to win back to back play-offs since Nick Faldo 20 years earlier? Could Hansen or Immelman emulate Peter Baker, who in 1988 eagled the 72nd hole then beat Faldo with another eagle at the first extra hole in a play-off for the Benson and Hedges International Open at Fulford? Could Lawrie, the 2001 dunhill links champion at St Andrews, become the first winner of both tournaments sponsored by the luxury goods company?
The answer was no for them all. After Hansen and McGuigan were eliminated with par fives at the first play-off hole, Immelman, Lawrie and Vaughan had all played three shots second time round when Foster lined up his 40 foot putt for eagle. Minutes earlier his 12 footer for eagle to win on the first play-off hole had narrowly missed. This time was different though.
A triumphant clenched fist salute greeted the ball's disappearance underground and Immelman and Lawrie were gracious enough to acknowledge that the right man had won. Foster, who had required medication at the crack of dawn that day to combat the effects of dehydration, could only muster a contented smile.
So did that make him officially Worksop's Number One he was asked mischievously at the post-tournament press conference? “Nowhere near,” he replied. “Lee's a legend...and I can tell you I always value his support.”
That’s what friends are for!