Inside Errie Ball’s 100th birthday party
Sunday, July 6, 2014
STUART, Fla. – They say golf is a game of a lifetime, and few have lived those words quite like Samuel Henry “Errie” Ball. Born Nov. 14, 1910, in Bangor, Wales, Ball wears glasses, a hearing aid, and recently began relying on a cane. Otherwise, there were few indications that the diminutive Ball, dressed in a royal blue blazer, striped tie and gray slacks, had reached the century mark.
“I don’t feel 100,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Ball’s is a life well lived, and nearly 300 people celebrated the occasion with him Sunday evening at Willoughby Golf Club. The receiving line stretched out the door and down the hall as if they were greeting the Duke of Windsor, who Ball once taught. And in a way, Ball is golfing royalty.
No less than Bobby Jones recruited him to come to America. The years melt away when he reminisces, but the name of the ship? It was so long ago, he can’t remember.
“It may be the Mayflower,” he said.
During the eight-day trip across the Atlantic, he met Maxie Wright. She was engaged. So was Ball. No matter, they were married two months later – to each other. She’s 96 and they’ve been sweethearts for more than 73 years.
The man is a living museum of golf, old enough to have seen Harry Vardon, the 1896 British Open champion, play in person, and pair with the likes of Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. Of the 72 players who entered the 1934 Augusta National Invitational, otherwise known as the first Masters, Ball is the only competitor still alive. To hear Ball tell it, heading into the final day all he had to shoot was no worse than 71 and he would get invited back next year. “I blew it,” he said. “Shot 86.” Twenty-three years passed before he returned to Augusta in 1957, the longest stretch between appearances.
On this night, they toasted a man who qualified for 20 U.S. Opens, the PGA Championship 18 times, and dominated the Illinois PGA section during a distinguished playing career. But Ball was so much more than just a golfer. They came to say thank you for fixing that slice, for showing how to be a pro’s pro, and for making golf a better game.
There were framed congratulatory letters from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Jim McLean, and of course, Willard Scott, who wrote, “May you live to a hundred twenty!”
In the night’s most touching moment, Jim Remy, the outgoing president of the PGA, presented Ball with a framed copy of his original application for membership as a Class D professional. The date: June 20, 1931. Dues at the time: $5. A lesson: he charged $1.50.
“My uncle Frank was the head professional (at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club) and he took half of it,” Ball remembered. “So I got 75 cents.”
It felt like a fortune.
Remy read a roll call of the pros in attendance that had learned at his feet. One by one they stood to applause. When Ball arrived for a group photo with his disciples, the pitch in his voice rose.
“There’s all my boys,” he said.
One of them, Bruce Patterson, who replaced Ball as head professional at Butler National Golf Club, recalled looking forward to rainy days when Ball regaled members with stories. Like the time Palmer, whose locker was next to his, told him that he was going to drive the first green at Cherry Hills before the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open.
Another of his boys, Bill Erfurth, an assistant to Ball at Oak Park in 1955 and 1956 and the longtime pro at Skokie CC, recounted the time Ball and friend Chuck Gamble went to a local driving range and Ball signed up for a lesson. Ball dribbled the first few shots like a hacker, then obeyed the pro’s instruction. The tips took. He hit the ball a little better. In the brief span of a 30-minute lesson, Ball suddenly smacked shots like the pro he is.
“This young pro was beside himself,” Erfurth said. “He thought he’d performed a miracle.”
Ball left without giving away their secret. Ball likes to crack that Dewars on the rocks is the secret to his longevity. It is golf that is at Ball’s core. At 95, he still gave lessons every day but Sunday. Until July, he drove himself to the club three days a week. Just days ago, Willoughby member Nancy Ford scheduled a lesson.
“I’m ready to start teaching again,” he said with gusto.
They will be lining up, just as they waited with bated breath for Ball to say a few words.
“I feel that I’ve been called to the first tee at Augusta National,” he said. “Errie Ball, Willoughby Golf Club. Play away.”
At which point there was only one more thing to do: sing “Happy Birthday,” and wish him many more.