By LEE PACE
John Derr was sitting in the west wing of The Carolina Hotel lobby one afternoon in December 2009 doing what he did best — telling stories. What Ben Hogan was with a 5-iron and putter, Derr was with a narrative and punch line.
“He loved entertaining people,” longtime friend Tom Stewart once observed. “He was maybe the best storyteller I’ve ever known. I never heard him repeat himself. He always had something new to give.”
From his beginnings as a teenage sports, police and obituary reporter at the Gastonia Gazette to 62 years covering the Masters Tournament — many of them from the CBS radio and television tower above the 15th green — Derr had seen everything and met everyone. Or so it seemed.
And as he recounted having walked Pinehurst No. 2 with architect Donald Ross back in the 1930s and of having covered Hogan’s milestone win in the 1940 North and South Open at Pinehurst, it occurred to me there was surely not another soul on the planet as the 21st century was nearly a decade old whose reach into golf history hit those particular high notes.
His after-dinner talks included anecdotes ranging from golfers including Bob Jones and Sam Snead … to broadcasting luminaries like Red Barber and Edward R. Murrow … to film stars like Grace Kelly … to royalty such as the Duke of Windsor … to scientists like Albert Einstein. Mostly what people enjoyed hearing were his experiences at Augusta.
“I was fortunate to be there, seeing the action, and it was my pleasure to try to let others share my joy through my description,” Derr said. “I was heard by many, but I always tried to put myself in the position of being a reporter for a ‘shut-in’ who could not be there in person. I was telling him or her what was happening — speaking to that one person.”
Sadly one of the icons of the golf broadcasting and journalism worlds passed away Saturday evening. Derr was 97 when he died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Pinehurst.
Derr was born in 1917 and grew up in an athletic family in Gaston County (his brother played football at UNC and two sisters were all-conference in basketball), but the proclivity of his right knee to buckle when he ran kept him off the baseball diamond with his friends.
“It was pretty depressing, actually,” Derr said. “A boy who can’t play baseball … I was very disheartened.”
“I don’t know what I’d have become if not for golf. Daddy didn’t know it, but he was giving me something I could carry on my whole life — to 90 and beyond.” -John Derr
His father built two rudimentary golf holes in an apple orchard behind the Derr home and a family friend gave the boy three golf clubs. He could play golf by himself and didn’t have to run — two prerequisites for a youngster with a bum knee.
“I played those holes over and over and over again,” Derr said. “I wore myself out. I wanted to play a sport, but I couldn’t play baseball. The game occupied my time, it restored some self-esteem. I don’t know what I’d have become if not for golf. Daddy didn’t know it, but he was giving me something I could carry on my whole life — to 90 and beyond.”
Derr was just out of high school in 1935 and working full time for the Gastonia paper when he attended a photography seminar at Pinehurst conducted by John Hemmer, the long-time house photographer. During the lunch break on the second day, Derr wandered over to the golf shop, and there he complimented head pro Willie Wilson on the magnificence of the facility. But he qualified his praise by saying he had recently been to Augusta, where he found “the most beautiful course” he’d ever seen.
Donald Ross was standing nearby and overheard the exchange. The subject of Augusta National was a sensitive one to the Scottish golf architect, as at one point in the late 1920s Ross had an understanding with Bobby Jones that he would design the new club Jones wanted to create. But Jones hired Alister MacKenzie for the job after seeing MacKenzie’s work at Cypress Point on the California coast, and the new course opened in 1934. Ross subsequently went to work re-tooling No. 2, building two new holes and starting to experiment with replacing the sand-clay greens with Bermuda grass.
Ross approached Derr. “Young man, would you like see my golf course?” he asked.
Ross gave Derr a tour of the course and took pride in pointing out the three holes with the new grass greens.
“I did not have enough intelligence about golf to know what to ask him or what to pay attention to as he took me around the course,” Derr said. “All I knew was I was supposed to be in this photography seminar that my company had paid for and here I was on the golf course with some guy in a three-piece suit with a Scottish accent. Naturally, there were none of those little tape recorders back then. Can you imagine what that conversation would be like to listen to today?”
Derr moved to The Greensboro Daily News in 1938 and visited Pinehurst each spring to cover the North and South Open, at the time considered among a loose count of “major championships.” The world of golf knew hardly anything about an obscure Texas pro named Ben Hogan, but his win in Pinehurst and subsequent wins in Greensboro and Asheville the next two weeks catapulted his career into overdrive.
Derr batted out his story about Hogan’s win on his knee-top typewriter from the backseat of his Pontiac Coach as a buddy drove the car north to Greensboro. Derr then wrote an eight-column headline and passed it along to the composing room upon his arrival at the office. Later that evening, the press room foreman distributed the early edition throughout the newsroom, and Derr was aghast when he saw the name he knew he had spelled correctly come out botched at the top of the sports front.
“I had an attraction from those early days to Pinehurst because it was the high class. You were up in the world. You felt like you elevated yourself from overalls to a dress suit. If you were at Pinehurst, you were associating with people whose names were in the paper, who were of some importance. Pinehurst has a soul of its own. To me, it’s like a piece of heaven.” – John Derr
“Hagen Wins North and South Open,” the headline read.
But it had not been Walter Hagen, the winner of 11 major championships in golf, who had prevailed. But a compositor in the back shop had assumed Derr’s spelling was a mistake and changed it to “Hagen.” Derr stopped the presses and a heated exchange ensued.
“But who the hell is Hogan?” the composing room man cried.
“Who knew at the time what would become of this young pro from Texas?” Derr mused. “He was one of many fine golfers I had the privilege to follow over the years and become friends with.”
Derr bought a home in Pinehurst in 1973 and spent the last four decades of his life in the village, playing golf, speaking to golf groups and participating in a weekly radio roundtable on assorted golf subjects.
“I had an attraction from those early days to Pinehurst because it was the high class,” Derr said. “You were up in the world. You felt like you elevated yourself from overalls to a dress suit. If you were at Pinehurst, you were associating with people whose names were in the paper, who were of some importance.
“Pinehurst has a soul of its own. To me, it’s like a piece of heaven.”
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.