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98-year-old author only player still living from inaugural Masters

Photo: Fred Vuich

Seventy-five years ago Ball posed with Yates (middle) and Jones (right), whose swing he adopted and still teaches at Willoughby Golf Club in Stuart, Fla.

Seventy-two men played in the first Masters, in 1934, and I'm the only one left. I'm looking at a picture of that field. Gene Sarazen is gone. Walter Hagen is gone. Charlie Yates is gone. Bob Jones has been gone for years. I was born in Bangor, in northern Wales, in 1910. Bob got me to this country, and Bob got me to the Masters.

We didn't call it the Masters that first year. The sportswriters came up with that later. It was the Augusta National Invitation. It was not then what it is now. Still, I remember the event quite well. When you're 98, you have a lot of things to remember. There's a lot of competition. But anything with Bob Jones rises to the top of your head.

I moved to England as a boy and played in my first British Open in 1926, when I was 15. I met Jones because I was from a golfing family. One relative of mine, Johnny Ball, had won the British Amateur eight times. My uncle, Frank Ball, was the head professional at East Lake, in Atlanta, where Jones learned the game. When Jones came over for the Open in 1930, the year he won the Grand Slam, he suggested to my father that I come to East Lake to work as an assistant pro. When Jones made a suggestion like that, you took him up on it. That was his stature in the game.

I modeled my swing on Jones's swing. His swing always looked relaxed, and his hands looked perfect on the club, as if he were playing a fine instrument. Twice I played in exhibitions with him, once at East Lake and once most memorably at the Highlands, in North Carolina.

There was a large crowd there, at least 1,000 people. I was nervous and rushing. Bob said, "Slow up, slow up, slow up." That's how Bob taught — casually. He might say, "Maybe a little too much right hand there." Jones believed in playing lessons. After the Highlands exhibition, Bob retired to the clubhouse. He liked his corn liquor, and he liked to sing. This was during Prohibition, and the drink was Carolina moonshine. The men in the clubhouse sang in groups. It was I've Been Working on the Railroad, Down by the Old Mill Stream, songs like that. Bob was enjoying himself. In the exhibition it had been Charlie Yates, a great Georgia amateur, and me against Bob. And he beat us, on our better ball! He was a hell of a competitor.

The Augusta National course was wide-open and hilly in 1934, and the greens were so quick. I don't think Bob would like the course today — so long, and with the rough and all those trees. Originally, the sloping, fast greens were the main defense. I had never putted on greens anything like them.

In those days we didn't use the word yips. That horrid putting ailment was called the twitches, and at that first Masters I got a case of the twitches that lasted for years. I shot 74, 75 and 74 in the first three rounds. I was looking for a top 10 finish, to get invited for the next year. The nines were reversed back then. In the fourth round, on my third hole — what would be the 12th today, the par-3 over the creek — I hit a six-iron to eight or nine feet. I stood over the putt and couldn't bring the head of the putter back. Charlie Yates was playing with me. Finally, I made a few stabs at the ball, took a 5 on the hole and fell apart. I finished with an 86.

Charlie never said a thing about it to me, and as far as I know Jones never knew about it. I hope he didn't. You didn't talk about the twitches — they might be contagious — but everybody knew I struggled with the putting. I was considered a fine striker of the ball. My putting held me back.

I didn't make it back to the Augusta until 1957. In '56 I had a top 24 finish in the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., and that earned me a spot in the next year's Masters field. I shot rounds of 75 and 78 and missed the cut. I hadn't seen Bob since '34, in Augusta. I was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and my club jobs took me to Mobile, Tucson and Chicago. Bob wrote a beautiful letter of recommendation for me for my first head pro job, in Mobile. He helped a lot of pros. Physically, the years had not been kind to him. But he was still Bob Jones: beautifully groomed and dressed, with manners to match. All the pros of my era took a page from him.

I'll always be grateful to Bob. He got me to America, and there's more opportunity in America than anywhere else in the world. I married an American girl, Maxie Wright of Richmond, in 1937, and we're still happily married all these years later. I still teach the game, and with every lesson I give I think of Bob Jones. I used to enjoy playing lessons, as he did, but you can't make a living that way. Now I get $50 a half hour. I'm teaching Bob Jones: relaxed hands, big shoulder turn. You don't have to muscle it out there. You can beauty it out there. That's what I took from playing and watching Bob.

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