Errie Ball, who has died in his 104th year, truly was “The Grand Old Man of professional golf”. He never won a Major, but he was the last survivor of the golfers who competed in the first US Masters tournament at Augusta.
Errie Ball was the fourth generation of a golfing family. John Ball Jnr, the great amateur golfer of the late Victorian era, who was the first amateur to win the Open Championship, in 1890, was his great-grand-uncle. His father, William Henry Ball was a professional golfer and while Errie was born in Bangor, Gwynedd, while his father was working at a club there, he was raised in Lancaster, where his father was club professional for half a century.
Young Errie left school to join his father as an assistant professional and learn the family “trade”. Such was Errie’s promise that, aged 15, he qualified for the 1926 Open Championship, held at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
He remains the youngest golfer ever to qualify for golf’s greatest championship. The event was won by the great Bobby Jones, for the first of his three victories in the event.
The teenaged Ball finished 47th, some 29 shots adrift, but, Jones, who Ball always called: “Bob” rather than Bobby, was clearly impressed by the youngster and in 1930, the year in which Jones completed his original “Grand Slam” of golf, by winning the US and British Opens and Amateur Championships, he persuaded him to move to the United States; securing for Ball a place as an assistant professional at his home East Lake golf club in Atlanta – where Ball’s uncle Frank was the resident professional.
From there, Ball struck out on his own as mainly a teaching club professional and it was while he was working at a club in Mobile, Alabama, in 1934, that he was one of 85 golfers to receive a personal invitation from Jones to play in the inaugural Augusta National Invitational tournament.
Ball was one of 72 positive responders who started a tournament that, the following year, became The Masters.
Horton Smith won that inaugural event, Ball finished tied for 38th place, following a disastrous final round 86.
He would only compete in one other Masters, in 1957; his 23 years between appearances creating a record that still stands.
When Ball began working in the United States, the PGA Tour was a small, mainly localised event, professional golfers could not make a living from competitive play alone. They needed the security of a club job, teaching, selling equipment and looking after the club members.
By the time Ball returned to the event for that 1957 Masters, things had changed markedly. The 1957 event was the first at which there was a 36-hole “cut”. Ball failed to make the 150 target, after rounds of 75 and 78, but, he was in good company as the great Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and inaugural winner Horton Smith were others among those who dropped out at the half-way stage. Gary Player made his Masters debut that year,
Ball’s was a peripatetic existence around the golf clubs of the United States. In the summer, he would work for clubs in Illinois and other northern states; in the winter, he went south, to clubs in Arizona or Florida.
He eventually settled in Florida, where, at his death, he was professional emeritus at the Willoughby Golf Club, in Stuart, Florida.
When Ball was at his peak, the US PGA Tour was a shadow of the multi-billion dollar year-round event it is today. Ball still won some 13 Tour events over his career, qualified for the US Open on 20 occasions and was a 12-times competitor at the US PGA Championship, the fourth Major. His best performance came in the 1962 US Open, when he finished in a tie for second place.
However, his influence as a teacher, and in particular as a teacher of professionals, was immense. In 2011, this facet of his career was recognised when he was elected to the USPGA’s Hall of Fame. He was a professional golfer for more than 80 years.
In his lengthy career, Ball played with and against all the greats of the game – from The Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid, via Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, to Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and on to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
His length of drive earned the 5ft 6in Ball the nickname “the little man with the big stick”, and, as a centurion, he could still hit a drive longer than 200-yards, straight down the middle of the fairway.
He put his longevity down to enjoying a Scotch whisky every afternoon. He was married for 78 years to his wife Maxie, who survives him, along with their daughter Leslie and his grandchildren and great- grandchildren.
The Willoughby golf club, in Stuart, Florida, the town to which he retired, erected a statue of Ball on the first tee, the tradition being that rubbing his head prior to teeing-off ensured a good score.