Errie Ball, who played in '34 Masters, dies at 103

Errie Ball, the lone surviving participant from the inaugural Masters and the oldest PGA member, died Wednesday morning of natural causes at Martin Hospital South in Stuart, Fla., according to the PGA of America. He was 103. Ball had been hospitalized since Saturday after having complained of breathing difficulty.

Samuel Henry "Errie" Ball, a native of Wales, came to the U.S. to work as an assistant to his uncle, Frank Ball, at Bobby Jones' home club, East Lake in Atlanta. Ball joined the PGA of America in 1932. He had been the head pro at Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill., site of the PGA Tour's former Western Open, before moving to Florida. Ball was inducted into the PGA's Hall of Fame in 2011.

According to the PGA, Ball competed in 25 major championships, including that 1934 Masters, which was debuted as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament. Among his golf titles, he was a three-time Illinois PGA champion and won the Illinois Open and the Illinois PGA Senior.

In recent years, Ball could be found teaching at Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart, where he gave lessons into his 100s.

“It was time,” said Gerry Knebels, Willoughby's head professional. “He had a kidney issue and was having a hard time breathing.”

Knebels saw Ball at the hospital Sunday-Tuesday. Ball’s wife of almost 78 years, 99-year-old Maxie, was at his side when he died. “She’s slowly understanding this was more than a hospital visit,” Knebels said.

Knebels said Ball had lost mobility and hearing but could still converse and recognize people. “Father time caught up with him ... finally,” said Knebels, an assistant under Ball at Butler National in 1980-85 who then hired Ball as Willoughby’s emeritus director of golf in 1989.

“Talk about celebrating a great life,” Knebels said. “The guy enjoyed life. He was a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He was everybody’s friend.”

Bruce Patterson, another former Ball assistant who followed his mentor as Butler head professional, recalls that a lesson from Ball sometimes wasn’t so much fundamental instruction as it was emotional lift. Ball would encourage students and customarily say, “Now you got it!”

Ball used that positive pump on himself, too. When Patterson called on Ball’s 95th birthday, Ball said, “I was out hitting balls. I think I’ve got it figured out.”

“He taught kind of a happiness,” Patterson said. “He taught rhythm and tempo in an upbeat manner where people came away feeling good.”

PGA president Ted Bishop, in a statement, called Ball "a professional in all aspects of life."

"Errie's amazing career spans the legends of the game, from Harry Vardon through Tiger Woods," Bishop said. "His longevity, according to those who knew him best, was founded upon a love of people. Each day, like each step he took on the course, was spent with purpose. We will miss him dearly, but his legacy continues to shine through the many PGA professionals he inspired to grow our game."

In addition to his wife, Ball is survived by a daughter, Leslie, of Miami; brothers Tom, of South Africa, and John, of England; two granddaughters and a great-grandson.

– Jeff Rude contributed to this report

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