Like most golf fans, Errie Ball can't wait for next week's Masters.
Unlike most golf fans, however, Ball has a connection with Augusta National that most can only dream about. How many people can say they played in the first Masters, contested almost 80 years ago?
Ball, the 102-year-old Stuart resident, remains the lone surviving member among the 72 players who teed it up in the inaugural Augusta National Invitational in 1934. It's been that way since former British Amateur champion Charles Yates died in 2005 at age 92, leaving Ball as the last link to some amazing links history.
''That gave me an awful lot of prestige," Ball said this week of playing in the first Masters. "Being a longtime club professional, I was thrilled and excited for that opportunity."
Ball received the invitation from Augusta National co-founder and amateur legend Bobby Jones, who Ball met after he became the youngest player (15) to compete in the Open Championship (1926). Ball played respectably, shooting rounds of 74, 75 and 74 and was tied for 23rd going into the final round and in position to get a return invite. But he got a bad case of the yips in the final round on Augusta National's lightning-fast greens (even back then) and shot an 86 to finish tied for 38th.
''I blew it," Ball said.
It took Ball 23 more years to return to the Masters, which only served as more history: That was the longest stretch between appearances in golf's first and, many believe, most precious major. His second trip to Augusta National wasn't as memorable, though -- he shot rounds of 75-78 and missed the cut by three shots.
But what a memorable life it's been for Ball, a native of Wales who spent 22 years teaching at Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart. He's old enough to have seen 1896 British Open champion Harry Vardon (of Vardon grip and Vardon Trophy fame) play in person.
Ball was talented enough to have played alongside Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. And his locker was next to Arnold Palmer at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills when Palmer told him of his intentions to drive the par-4 first green (Ball had missed the cut). Palmer did drive the green to ignite a final-round 65 that enabled him to rally from a seven-shot deficit and win his only national championship.
''I've been lucky," Ball said.
Ball knows he's nearing the end of his back nine. He relies on a hearing aide, needs a wheelchair to get around and stopped teaching at Willoughby a few years ago because of his declining health.
''I haven't been feeling too great lately," Ball said.
But there's something about seeing the dogwoods and azaleas next week that will brighten his spirits. He and wife Maxie (they've been married more than 70 years after meeting on an ocean liner from England to the U.S.) will pour a scotch and watch the 79th Masters.
''I kind of pull for Ernie Els, because I like his swing. He has one of the best swings today," Ball said. "If not him, then Tiger. He's got a good chance to win it. He knows that course pretty well and he's won it before." Four times, to be exact, but not since 2005, which must seem like a lifetime for Woods.
What always surprised me is Masters officials never reached out to Ball to host him at one of their championships. Maybe it's because he openly talked about there being whiskey tucked in coolers on the tee boxes during that inaugural event.
For a place that so cherishes its history -- "A tradition unlike any other," CBS' Jim Nantz has probably said a billion times -- it seems odd that Billy Payne and his predecessors never reached out to Ball, especially after Yates' passing.
But nobody can touch those unique memories Ball has of playing in one of golf's most historic moments.
''I wish I could play in it again," Ball said.
ERRIE BALL HIGHLIGHTS
Who: Samuel Henry "Errie" Ball
Born: Nov. 14, 1910. Age: 102
Birthplace: Bangor, Wales
Residence: Stuart, Fla.
In addition to being the last surviving player to compete in the first Masters in 1934 (he also played at Augusta National in 1957), Ball qualified for 20 U.S. Opens, 18 PGA Championships and dominated the Illinois PGA section during a distinguished playing career
He was inducted into the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame in 2011
In 1948, he became head professional at Oak Park Country Club in Illinois for the next 24 years.
In 1972, he became the first PGA head professional and later PGA director of golf at famed Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook
Ball won three Illinois PGA Championships, the Illinois Open, the Illinois PGA Senior Open and Match Play Championship.
Did you Know? Ball moved to Stuart and started working at Willoughby Golf Club in 1990. He still is listed as the teaching pro emeritus at Willoughby, though he has cut back on his instructing because of his health.