John Ball dominated amateur golf in Great Britain the way Bob Jones did in the United States. He won eight British Amateur championships, The Open and the hearts and respect of his country. In the words of British golf historian Donald Steele, “No golfer ever came to be more of a legend in his own lifetime.” He was the first amateur golfer in England to be named by the Royal Empire as an Immortal.
In 1878, at the age of 17, Ball finished fifth in The Open at Prestwick. His run of Amateur titles began in 1888 and stretched until 1912, when he was 51 years old. His best year was 1890, when he won both the British Amateur and The Open Championships. Jones, who won the Grand Slam in 1930, is the only other golfer in history to win those two tournaments in the same year.
Although he gripped the club tightly in the palms of both hands, Ball’s swing was the most graceful and stylish of his era. Bernard Darwin wrote, “I have derived greater aesthetic and emotional pleasure from watching John Ball than from any other spectacle in the game.”
Ball learned the game competing against Harold Hilton on the links at Hoylake. In 1876, at the age of 15, he competed in his first Open Championship and finished sixth at St. Andrews.
"I have derived greater aesthetic and emotional pleasure from watching John Ball than from any other spectacle in the game." - Bernard Darwin
Nine years later, he competed in his first British Amateur, but it wasn’t until 1887 that Ball reached the final and lost to Horace Hutchinson. He won his first Amateur title the next year, defeating J.E. Findlay at Prestwick, 5 and 4.
In 1892, Ball defeated Hilton in the final of the British Amateur at Sandwich, but finished runner-up to Hilton in The Open Championship at Muirfield. He would not get as close again in The Open, but continued to play competitive golf at a high standard into his later years.
At age 60 he reached the sixth round of the British Amateur. In 1927, at the age of 66, Ball attempted to win his 100th British Amateur match, but was defeated in the second round and came up one victory shy of the milestone. It wasn’t long afterward that Ball retired to a farm in North Wales, where he died in 1940.
John Ball, Jr. became the first amateur golfer to win The Open Championship in 1890.
Ball was famous for refusing to carry a niblick, which had the loft of a modern day 8- or 9-iron. He scorned the use of that club, describing it as “another bloody spade,” and admonished the Rules of Golf Committee of the Royal and Ancient for permitting such horrid-looking contraptions to be allowed in competition. In a bunker, Ball would simply lay open the blade of a mid-iron and float the ball toward the hole with a smooth swing.
It was this stubbornness and dogged determination that made Ball such a lion in match play. Darwin once noted that Ball had “a strong vein of hostility and if he wanted a particular player’s blood, he would fight his way through a tournament with the sole object of getting at him.” Darwin added, “That was not a personal hostility, but rather a desire to measure himself against a foe really worthy of him.”
Words from Ball are hard to find. He was a shy man who went about his business without wasted motion. In his book, Sixty Years of Golf, Robert Harris wrote that “John’s soft, whispering voice, his stoicism, his pawky jibs at easy rules and innovations, his relentless criticism of moderns with their fuss, and his total outlook on the game, were the very essence of golf.”