Thursday, June 18

Golf Journalist John Derr Was a Master Storyteller

Legendary golf journalist John Derr died on Saturday, June 6, the day American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes to become the first horse in nearly three decades to capture the Triple Crown. Derr's daughter believes he had a heart attack while watching the historic race. He was 97. You can read the New York Times obituary here.

I wrote the following piece about John Derr in 2010.

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For years Lloyd Mangrum and I met on a bench outside the locker room and recalled the early days and did a thorough job of "character assassination" on some old acquaintances. Then one day I found no one to help me remember. So I don't sit there anymore.
John Derr sharing a Masters memory in 2007

I'M CONVINCED THAT JOHN DERR has more golf (and other) stories than any person I've encountered. The 92-year-old sports commentator has included many of them in a new volume titled My Place at the Table: Stories of Golf and Life. The introduction is penned by bestselling author James Dodson.

John Derr broadcasting golf for CBS-TV.
I came to know John through a mutual acquaintance a few years ago. Since then he has shared a handful of his memories with me. Beginning in 1935, John covered 62 Masters as a print and broadcast journalist, including the first 16 that were covered by CBS-TV.

In 2007, John won the prestigious Masters Major Achievement Award. I asked him at the time what it was like to cover the Masters in those earlier days.

"Exacting, frustrating, very rewarding," John said. "I always felt fortunate to be there, seeing the play, and it was my pleasure to try to let others share my joy through my description. 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—that one person.

"My job was reporting it fairly and honestly, even though some of the golfers were especially good and close friends. As a reporter you must be neutral. You are no longer a cheering fan. Communications were critical in the early days, both for a writer and especially for a broadcaster early on. But we found a way to do it."

When John said that some of the golfers were his friends, he was referring to men like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. John walked every step with Hogan at Carnoustie in 1953 when the golf legend won the only British Open he ever entered.

"John Derr is one of the few people I would trust to get the story right and report it as it happened," Hogan said. Snead commented that Derr "could be counted on to get to the heart of the story."

If you glance at the list of people John knew and covered through the years, it reads like a who's who of the 20th century. John covered far more than golf. His reporting and life travels allowed him to cross paths with Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Albert Einstein, Byron Nelson, Grace Kelly, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Graham, Mahatma Gandhi, Babe Zaharias, Bing Crosby, Rocky Marciano, Edward Murrow, Jack Dempsey, Richard Nixon, Henry Ford and every important golfer from Jones to Woods not already mentioned.

"Just color me lucky," John wrote in the prologue of My Place at the Table.

His memory and pen are still agile. The 100 or so stories in the book are told with clarity and a kind of offhanded charm that make the reader feel like that "one person" who is privy to an amazing little tale.

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