Errie Ball, the lone surviving participant from the inaugural Masters, and the oldest member of the PGA of America, died Wednesday morning of natural causes at Martin Hospital South in Stuart, according to the PGA. He was 103.
Ball, who was pro emeritus at at Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart, had been hospitalized since Saturday after having complained of breathing difficulty.
“The PGA of America is saddened by the passing of Errie Ball, a professional in all aspects of life,” said Ted Bishop, the president of the Palm Beach County-based organization. “Errie’s amazing career spans the legends of the game, from Harry Vardon through Tiger Woods.
“His longevity, according to those who knew him best, was founded upon a love of people. Each day, like each step he took on the course, was spent with purpose. We will miss him dearly, but his legacy continues to shine through the many PGA professionals he inspired to grow our game.”
Samuel Henry “Errie” Ball, a native of Wales, came to the U.S. to work as an assistant to his uncle, Frank Ball, at Bobby Jones’ home club, East Lake in Atlanta. Ball and the legendary Jones first crossed paths in the 1926 British Open. Jones won his first claret jug that year and Ball, at age 15, was the youngest-ever competitor in the event.
Four years later at Hoylake, Jones won the Open again and convinced Ball to come to America.
“He said ‘You’d do well over there,’ ” Ball said in a 2009 interview with the Augusta Chronicle. “And he was right. I’ve done well. Thanks to him, it opened a lot of doors.”
Ball joined the PGA of America in 1932. He had been the head pro at Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill., site of the PGA Tour’s former Western Open. Ball was inducted into the PGA’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
According to the PGA, Ball competed in 25 major championships, including that 1934 Masters, which was then called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
At the time, Ball was working as an apprentice at East Lake in Atlanta and had an emerging reputation as an impressive young player when he was invited to play at Augusta National. But he didn’t imagine the tournament would grow into the iconic event it is today.
“They were trying to get the thing off the ground, and I really didn’t think they’d make it,” Ball told the Palm Beach Post in 2011. “There were good golfers in the field, but it was more like a party. I didn’t make it back until 1957 and couldn’t believe the difference. And from 1957 to what it is now I never could have imagined.”
Ball always spoke about the 12th hole (now Augusta’s third). After hitting a 6-iron to just 3 feet from the pin, Ball putted the ball off the green. It took him three more strokes before he finished the hole with a double-bogey. He ended the tournament tied for 38th place and left without a paycheck.
“I developed the yips from then on,” Ball told the Palm Beach Post in 2004. “I had never putted on greens that fast. That hurt my competitive career for a long time. That kind of got me off the tour.”
But Ball still finished with multiple golf titles. He was a three-time Illinois PGA champion and won the Illinois Open and the Illinois PGA Senior.
“He reminded me a lot of Jones swinging the golf club,” Boca Raton resident Bob Toski, a longtime friend of Ball’s, said to the Palm Beach Post in 2004. “He would have been a very successful Tour player had he putted better. I was so impressed with his swing. But when I saw him putt, I felt sorry for him. Yet he’s always been one of the true gentlemen of this game.”
In recent years, Ball could be found teaching at Willoughby Golf Club where he gave lessons into his 100s. He inspired players a quarter his age with his vigor.
“You are bionic!” famously fit and nine-time major winner Gary Player wrote on a photo he sent to Ball for his 95th birthday.
Ball was married to the former Maxine “Maxie” Wright for 77 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Leslie, of Miami; brothers Tom, of South Africa, and John, of England; two granddaughters and a great-grandson.