Born in Wales, Samuel Henry Ball, always known as Errie, was the last surviving participant in the first-US Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, in 1934. The American media described him as “the last Master standing.” A prodigy from one of Britain’s most famous golfing families of the era, he had played in the Open Championship as a teenager. That brought him to the attention of one of the Open’s greats, the legendary American amateur Bobby Jones.
It was Jones who invited him to the new tournament in August in 1934, by which time the Welshman had emigrated to the US at Jones’s suggestion. Initially, the tournament was called the Augusta National Invitational but soon became known as the Masters. Ball went on to play in more than 40 major championships, including several Opens, 20 US Opens, 18 PGA Championships and a second Masters as late as 1957, all unfortunately without the success his early promise had suggested.
He won numerous PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) of America titles although at the time they were “section”, or regional events, many in Illinois, where he was based at the time. (It’s hard to imagine now but PGA events in those days were limited to “Caucasians only”). He went on to compete in 19 Senior US PGA Championships (now part of the Champions’ Tour), tying for second in 1962.
His great uncle John Ball, from Hoylake, Merseyside, had won the Open at Prestwick in 1890, the first amateur to win the event as well as the first non-Scot. Scots had won it for the first 29 years. John Ball was also British amateur champion eight times.
Errie’s swing was oft compared with that of Jones. But he admitted that the “yips” over putts – starting with a triple-bogey on a par 3 at Augusta – blighted his career: “I’d never putted on greens that fast.” And so his forte became teaching. He instructed generations of golfers, one of the most notable being the Duke of Windsor. “It was at the Butler National Golf Club in Illinois [where Ball was head pro]. Mrs Simpson was by his side the whole time and I gotta tell you, he wasn’t much of a golfer!” He went on teaching near his home in Florida until he was a still-sprightly 101, unmistakeable in his 19th century style white flat cap, or bunnet. His driving licence was renewed when he was 100.
Samuel Henry Ball was born in Bangor, north Wales in 1910, but grew up largely in England, where his father Harry was head pro at the Lancaster Golf Club for 50 years and where Errie began learning the game at the age of 10, turning pro at 17. Two of his uncles, Sid and Frank Ball, and a cousin, Tom Ball, were professionals so the family had no problem setting up “two-Balls” or “four-Balls” among themselves.
The family’s golfing patriarch was Errie’s great uncle, the legendary Open winner John Ball of Hoylake, whose father owned the Royal Hotel near Royal Liverpool, where the Open Championship will be held next week. John saw the Hoylake course established and virtually grew up on it, passing his passion down to young Errie.
When Errie was a boy, people would distinguish him and his father as “Old ’Arry and Young ’Arry,” confusing not only in normal life but also when they played in the same tournaments. It was the family’s French maid who suggested the boy should call himself Errie.
Encouraged by his mentor, Jones, Errie Ball moved to the US in 1930 to work as an assistant instructor to his uncle Frank at the East Lake Club in Atlanta, Georgia, later graduating to chief pro at Mobile Country Club in Alabama on the recommendation of Jones, experiencing in both clubs the racial segregation of the American South. Having become a US citizen, he was drafted into the navy after the start of the Second World War, serving domestically before settling in Illinois. He later became chief pro at the Tucson Country Club in Arizona and later at the Willoughby Country Club near his home in Stuart, Florida, where he retained the title Pro Emeritus until his death.
Women he coached became light-heartedly known as Ball’s Babes but he remained happily married to Maxie, whom he had married in 1936 two months after meeting her on a ship to the US after attending the Open at Hoylake.
Recalling that first 1934 Masters, on the Augusta course co-designed by Jones and the British course architect Alister MacKenzie – essentially the same course as today – Ball said: “The guys who played that first year never dreamed the tournament would turn into what it is today. That first year was more a social event, a party, with kegs of corn liquor strategically placed for players to dip into [Prohibition had just ended]. Luckily, I wasn’t a drinker. The course has changed a little bit since we played it but it hasn’t changed so much that I can’t still recognise the holes. Bob Jones – he hated being called Bobby, he said it was Scottish fans that insisted on Bobby – was trying to get the thing off the ground and I really didn’t think they’d make it.” The putting yips left Ball tied for 38th place, 21 over par and 25 behind the Master’s first winner, Horton Smith.
The US PGA’s oldest and longest-serving member (83 years), Ball was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 2011. He retained a Welsh lilt all his life. Asked last year what was the secret of his longevity, he replied, “Have a good wife. Plenty of exercise. Good thoughts. Minimal drinking but and a couple of Scotches every night.” His only criticism of modern-day golf was “the way they pump their fist when they make a putt. Tiger is terrible with that. They’re trying to make it like football, bringing the crowd into it. What players said in my day was ‘tip your hat, like a gentleman.’”
Ball is survived by his wife of 77 years, Maxie, and an extended family that includes a one-year-old great-great-grandson.
Samuel Henry “Errie” Ball, golfer and instructor; born Bangor 14 November 1910; married 1936 Maxine Wright (one daughter); died Stuart, Florida 2 July 2014.