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Samuel 'Errie' Ball

Golfer

Golfer

Born: November 14, 1910; Died: July 2, 2014, aged 103.

Errie Ball, who has died aged 103 was, at the time of his death, believed to be the oldest professional golfer in the world. He had been paid to hit golf balls for over 80 of his 103 years.

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He came from a golfing family. His great-grand-uncle, John Ball Junior, had, in 1890, become the first amateur golfer to win the Open Championship. His father and uncles were professional, and, it was while his father William was working for a club in Bangor, Gwynedd, that young Errie was born.

The Ball family returned to their native Lancashire, as William Ball began a 50-year association with the Lancaster club where Errie first picked up a club and showed himself to be a child prodigy.

In 1926, as a 15-year-old assistant professional at his father's club, Ball qualified for the Open, played at nearby Royal Lytham & St Annes. He remains the youngest player ever to contest golf's greatest championship, in which he finished 47th, dropping down the leader board courtesy of a final round in the mid-eighties, to finish 29 shots adrift of the winner.

That winner was the supreme amateur, Atlanta's Bobby Jones, winning the first of his three Opens that year. Jones was taken by the Lancashire teenager, to whom he became something of a mentor. In 1930, Jones, whom Ball always called "Bob", never "Bobby", persuaded Ball Snr to allow his son to cross the Atlantic, and secured for him an assistant's post at the East Lanke GC at Atlanta, Jones's home course. The transition was made easier by the fact that Ball's Uncle Frank was the professional there.

Professional golf in the US was, back then, a very different game from today. The USPGA Tour was a far cry from today's multi-billion dollars "show". There were events, but, they were much more localised and while Ball was soon winning events, like his contemporaries, he had to rely on the security of a placement with a club, or two clubs, since professionals in the northern clubs would also take temporary placements in Arizona, Texas or Florida for the winter.

Ball served several clubs, in Georgia, Illinois and in Mobile, Alabama, where he met and married Maxie, his wife of nearly 80 years, who survives him. He qualified for the US Open on 20 occasions, finishing in a tie for second in 1962, and also made 12 appearances in the fourth major, the US PGA Championship, back in the days when this was a match-play event.

In 1934, he was one of 85 golfers whom Jones invited to a new tournament he was inaugurating at Augusta National GC. Ball was one of 72 to respond positively, finishing 38th in the event, which was won by Horton Smith. The following year, the tournament was renamed The Masters and an April tradition had started.

Ball would play in just one further Masters, in 1957. This was a watershed year, the first in which the tournament, which now had an entry of over 100, initiated a 36-hold cut. This came at 150, Ball had round of 75 and 78 to miss the cut.

Gary Player made his Augusta debut that year, but, in missing the cut, Ball was joined by such greats as Ben Hogan, Horton Smith, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen. In his long career he played with and against all the top golfers, from the Vardon, Taylor, Braid "Great Triumvirate" of the pre-First World War era, via Hagen, Smith and Sarazen between the wars, on through Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Hogan, to Player and Palmer, while, as one of golf's elder statesmen, he was much taken by the young Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

His lasting legacy is as a teacher of golf, and in particular as a teacher of teaching professionals. Many men who went on to spread the game by teaching at clubs across the US started their careers under Ball. This aspect of his life was recognised when he was admitted to the USPGA's Hall of Fame in 2011.

A small man, standing five foot six inches tall, he was described as the little man with the big stick thanks to his ability to hit his drives a long way, straight down the middle of the fairway. Even in his 11th decade, he could hit a straight drive more than 200 yards.

He spent the latter part of his long career at the Willoughby GC in Stuart, Florida, where he held the title professional emeritus. The grateful members erected a statue of Ball behind the first tee and it was considered a good luck gesture to pat the head before driving off.

Ball, who put his longevity down to an afternoon Scotch, is survived by Maxie, their only daughter Leslie and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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