John Ball, Open Champion and Amateur Golf Legend

Golfer John Ball circa 1913
John Ball was a giant of British golf in the 19th and early 20th centuries, winning a record eight British Amateur Championships — plus one Open. He achieved several important firsts in major championship history. And he remains the only golfer other than Bobby Jones to win the British Open and Amateur championships in the same year.

Full name: John Ball Jr.

Date of birth: December 24, 1861

Place of birth: Hoylake, England

Date and place of death: December 2, 1940 in Holywell, Wales

Ball's Biggest Wins

  • St. George's Challenge Cup: 1888, 1889, 1890, 1891
  • British Amateur Championship: 1888, 1890, 1892, 1894, 1899, 1907, 1910, 1912
  • British Open: 1890
  • Irish Amateur Championship: 1893, 1894, 1899

His British Open Victory

When John Ball won the 1890 British Open, he achieved multiple notable firsts. He was the amateur golfer to win the Open. He was the first English golfer to win it. And he was the first golfer who was not Scottish to win it. And, since he won the Amateur Championship in 1890, too, he was the first (and, along with Bobby Jones, still one of only two) to achieve that same-year double.

The 1890 British Open was contested over 36 holes at Prestwick Golf Club. After the morning 18, Ball, on 82, was tied with Hugh Kirkaldy in second place, one stroke behind Hugh's brother Andrew Kirkaldy.

In the afternoon 18, Ball followed with another 82, while Andrew Kirkaldy had an 89 and Hugh a 91. Ball finished on 164, three strokes better than the runners-up, Willie Fernie and Archie Simpson.

Ball in the British Amateur Championship

Ball's record in the British Amateur is unmatched, and is among the best records compiled by any golfer in any one tournament ever: He won it eight times, two other times lost in the championship match, five other times reached the semifinals, and three other times made it into the quarterfinals.

No other golfer has won The Amateur Championship more than five times, and only two others (Michael Bonallack, five, and Harold Hilton, four) have won it at least four times. Ball first won the Amateur in 1888 and last won it in 1912, and that 24-year span from first to last win is also the tournament record.

Ball played in what today is regarded as the first British Amateur Championship in 1885 at Royal Liverpool. He lost in the semifinals after beating his father John Ball Sr. in the third round. His first victory happened three years later.

Here are the championship match scores for all eight of Ball's Amateur wins, along with, parenthetically, victories against notable opponents on his run to each final:

  • 1888: def. Johnny Laidlay, 5 and 4
  • 1890: def. Johnny Laidlay, 4 and 3 (beat Harold Hilton in fourth round)
  • 1892: def. Harold Hilton, 3 and 1 (beat S. Mure Fergusson in third round, Horace Hutchinson in fourth round, Leslie Balfour-Melville in semifinals)
  • 1894: def. S. Mure Fergusson, 1-up (beat Johnny Laidlay in semifinals)
  • 1899: def. Freddie Tait, 1-up on 37th hole (beat Harry S. Colt in third round)
  • 1907: def. Charles Palmer, 1-up (beat Johnny Laidlay in first round)
  • 1910: def. Colin Aylmer, 10-and-9 (beat Abe Mitchell in semifinals)
  • 1912: def. Abe Mitchell, 1-up on 38th hole
The two times Ball finished runner-up were 1887 and 1895. In 1887, he lost to Horace Hutchinson in the championship match, 1-down. In 1895, Ball fell on the first extra hole to Leslie Balfour-Melville.

Ball reached the Round of 16 in 1921 when he was 60 years old. He didn't enter again 1927, and, in that final appearance, achieved his 99th career match win in The Amateur Championship in the first round before bowing out in Round 2.

More About John Ball

John Ball Jr. was famous in his time for the grace in his golf swing. The World Golf Hall of Fame said of Ball, "Although he gripped the club tightly in the palms of both hands, Ball's swing was the most graceful and stylish of his era."

The famous golf writer Bernard Darwin once said, "I have derived greater aesthetic and emotional pleasure from watching John Ball than from any other spectacle in the game."

The R&A refers to Ball as "the first great amateur golfer" and its website says that "Ball possessed a remarkably beautiful swing and was able to regulate the height he hit the ball depending on the conditions."

Ball's accuracy with irons allowed him to take aim at the flagstick rather than just aiming at the green, as was common in Ball's era. In his 1980 book Who's Who of Golf (affiliate link), Peter Alliss wrote of Ball: "Credit is usually give to J.H. Taylor for being the first man to be able to impart considerable backspin and to be accurate with iron shots to the flag. However, it was probably John Ball who originally set the pace."

Ball didn't like highly lofted irons, believing that golfers should have the talent to regulate distance and trajectory by changing their setup and swing. (Older golfers have always bellyached about those young whippersnappers and all the help they get from newfangled equipment.) Ball would shut the face of his iron to play into wind, Alliss wrote, and when he needed height on a shot (for an approach into the green, for example), he would open the clubface and cut the ball.

British golfer John Ball

Ball's father, John Ball Sr., owned the Royal Hotel, which was next to the Royal Liverpool links in Hoylake, England. So John Jr. grew up in a well-off family and across the street from a famous links course. No wonder he became a highly accomplished, lifelong amateur golfer.

(John Ball Sr. was a good golfer himself, reaching the semifinals of the British Amateur in 1886 and 1887. Ball Sr. also once stopped his regular foursome match with friends after nine holes to go get married, then immediately returned and resumed the match on the 10th tee.)

Ball Jr. grew up playing at Hoylake (as Royal Liverpool is frequently called), where he often competed with and against another future Amateur and Open champion, Harold Hilton. Ball first competed in the British Open in 1876, when he was 15 years old. In the 1878 British Open, Ball finished tied for fourth place.

The Amateur Championship didn't launch until Royal Liverpool staged the first in 1885. Ball's results in the Open prior to that suggest he might have won even more than his eight Amateur titles had the Amateur Championship launched sooner.

In 1888, Ball won the St. George's Challenge Cup, a tournament preceding the Amateur Championship that many golfers played as a tune-up. Ball won it annually through 1891. Decades later, Jack Nicklaus won it in 1959. After winning the Challenge Cup, Ball then earned his first British Amateur victory.

One of Ball's most-famous matches was against Freddie Tait in the championship of the 1899 Amateur. Ball was 5-down after 14 holes, but slowly reeled Tait back in. When the match was all square after the 36th, Ball won it on the 37th hole.

Tait was killed in the Second Boer War in February of 1890. Later that year, Ball earned his British Open victory. Then he, too, went to fight in the Second Boer War, serving with the Cheshire Yeomanry, a volunteer light cavalry unit.

In addition to winning the 1890 Open Championship, Ball was low amateur in 1878 when he tied for fourth place when he was 17 years old; in 1908 when he tied for 13th; and in 1910 when he tied for 19th. Those were the only times he was low am in the Open despite several other high finishes: He was runner-up in the 1892 British Open, tied for eighth place in 1893, and tied for 11th place in 1891. He also had Top 20 finishes in 1894, 1895, 1897, 1902, 1904 and 1907. Ball's final appearance in the Open was 1911, when he missed the cut.

In the 1892 Open, it was Ball's old friend Harold Hilton to whom Ball finished runner-up, after beating Hilton in the championship match at the British Amateur earlier in the year. Ball led going into the final round, but Hilton wound up winning by three.

Ball was an early supporter of the "Haskell ball," the first rubber-cored golf ball, and helped convince Sandy Herd to play a Haskell ball during the 1902 British Open. Herd there became the first major winner to use a Haskell ball.

In addition to his biggest wins listed above, Ball also won around 25 more tournaments, nearly all of those events played at Royal Liverpool. He also played in the England-Scotland Amateur Match 12 times, every year from 1902 through 1912, and captained Team England the first 11 of those years.

Following his final appearance in the Amateur Championship in 1927, Ball moved to Wales and retired to a farm. He was 78 years old when he did in 1940.

Ball was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977.

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