Recalling a memorable day with Errie Ball: Played in first Masters and with Bobby Jones

Sad to hear the news this morning that Errie Ball died. He was 103.

When I spent a day with him in Florida in 2008, he was a mere kid at 97. It truly was one of the memorable days in my career. Ball was the last living player from the first Masters in 1934. He played golf with Bobby Jones, for goodness sakes.

Even at 97, Ball still was giving lessons and displayed a swing that surely stood the test of time.

From my 2008 story in the Chicago Tribune:

STUART, Fla. — The oldest Master still has game.

Errie Ball wraps his hands around the driver with the same classic grip he has used for more than 90 years. His backswing is short and compact, definitely not as flowing as in his younger years.

But when his club meets the ball, the sound is unmistakable. There’s the distinctive pop of center-cut contact.

Ball’s drive flies straight through the wind, landing nearly 200 yards out. Then the 97-year-old does it again and again and again.

Admiring the robotic consistency of Ball’s shots, Gerry Knebels, the head professional at Willoughby Golf Club, said, “That’s like breathing for you and me.”

Ball is living, breathing golf history. He competed in nearly 50 majors dating to 1926 when he earned a spot in the British Open as a 15-year-old. He played rounds with Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, you name it. He went on to become an accomplished teaching professional at Oak Park and then had a 27-year stint at Butler National in Oak Brook, serving as the host of several Western Opens at the club.

Dapperly attired with gray hair, blue eyes and a firm handshake, Ball still can be found at the range, hitting balls and giving an occasional lesson at Willoughby.

But it’s the Masters, which gets under way Thursday, that marks Ball’s most significant moment in the game. He was in the field for the first tournament at Augusta National in 1934.

In fact, of the 72 players who entered what was then known as the Augusta National Invitational Tournament (the tournament was named the Masters in 1939), Ball is the lone survivor.

“Good Lord, I’ve outlived all of them,” Ball said. “Whew.”

Later I wrote:

Ball eventually left Atlanta to go to Mobile, Ala. In 1934, he received a letter from Jones inviting him to play in a new tournament at a new course called Augusta National.

Ball didn’t think much of the event until he got the invitation.

“I was thrilled to death,” Ball said. “We all were. We knew if Bob put his name on it, it would be top-notch.”

Ball, then 23, recalled thinking the course was beautiful. The atmosphere also was festive with on-course kegs and corn whiskey.

Ball had a great time until the final round. He putted the ball off the green on what now is the 12th hole and wound up shooting 86 to finish in a tie for 38th.

“I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Ball said.

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