Ageless master: Ball offers tips on a wonderful life

Editor's note: Errie Ball died on July 2 at the age of 103. This column ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Golfweek. Read his obit here.

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STUART, Fla. – Errie Ball said he feels 50 or 60 years old. Then he used a cane to get up slowly from a living-room chair and sounded like he might reconsider those numbers. “Gosh, I’m getting old,” he said, smiling.

Ball’s version of getting old differs from ours. He is 103 years young. He has been a golf professional for 89 years and married to the lovely Maxie for 771/2. He played and taught golf into his 100s. You know you’ve been around when you pre-date common use of the automobile, radio, airplane and telephone.

Since 2005 he has been known for being the only living competitor from the first Masters, in 1934.

“When I stepped on the first tee at the Masters, I said, ‘This is something,’ and, ‘I hope I hit this tee shot,’ ” the last man standing recalls 80 years later. “I felt lucky I was invited, and I definitely feel lucky I’m still alive.”

When you walk into the Balls’ understated home, there’s no visible sign of the golf history that has surrounded him. You think this could be the residence of an accountant or train conductor – until you see a back bedroom full of memorabilia, ranging from an autographed photograph of Jack Nicklaus and a framed shot of his mentor and friend Bob Jones hitting a shot with a cigarette in his mouth.

Ball has seen all the greats play from Harry Vardon to Tiger Woods and has played with most of them. Nicklaus attended his 95th birthday party. But there’s no mistaking that Bob Jones, as he calls the Masters founder, was most special.

“I loved playing with him because he had such a great golf swing and I wanted to copy it,” said the Wales native, recruited by Jones in 1930 to work at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club. “I learned to be gracious from him.

He seemed like he shook hands with everybody with a smile.”

The same can be said of Ball, the longtime club pro who played in about 50 majors. You spend the better part of an afternoon with him and Maxie and you get a feeling of warmth. You get positive life lessons about longevity, happiness and marriage from a couple that are a combined 202-plus years.

Ball wears a pacemaker, has trouble hearing despite an aid in each ear and employs a live-in caregiver. But his memory can go decades deep at times, and he’s an expert on perspective. He and Maxie link their happy marriage to easygoing dispositions. He credits his longevity to genes, occupational love, exercise and fresh air. But there’s more.

“Having nice thoughts and one or two Scotch drinks a day,” said the man from a family of golf pros and long lifespans.

These days he walks around his screened-in pool a couple of times a day and has dinner with Maxie at the club. It doesn’t sound as if he plans to stop any time soon.

Ask him about his 103 years and he says, “I’ve had a wonderful life so far.” Ask him what he’s most proud of and there’s more of the same: “My marriage to my wife. . . . So far it’s been perfect.”

Ball says today’s touring pros are “hitters” as opposed to the “swingers” of his day. He knows this because he watches golf on television most weeks. As you might expect, the Masters is one event he always views.

“It makes me feel like I wish I was playing in it,” he said.

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