John Derr could never have known the sudden shift in trajectory his life would take by simply walking through the gates of Augusta National Golf Club 78 years ago to see the second Masters Tournament.
“Coincidence plays a lot in my life,” the 95-year-old Derr said of a lifetime of friendships and acquaintances with world leaders, celebrities and sporting superstars that began in April 1935 when he was 17 years old.
Derr – who attended 69 Masters as a journalist or patron and was instrumental in helping get the tournament televised on CBS – knew or met just about every relevant figure of the 20th century: Dwight Eisenhower, Mahatma Ghandi, Grace Kelly, Babe Ruth, Edward R. Murrow, Albert Einstein, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, to name just a few.
He was a regular guest at table No. 2 at Toots Shor’s in New York, where Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio held court at table No. 1.
But it was his intimate friendships with Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts that most influenced his life. It really is a story unlike any other.
“I got to Augusta by way of Duke University – not as a student but as a reporter at a Duke football game,” Derr said.
At age 17, Derr was working as an unpaid journalist for the Gazette in Gastonia, N.C. His editor agreed to pay him $12 a week as a reporter but charged him $12 a week to teach him how to do it.
The young Derr was covering Duke’s 1934 football game against Georgia Tech in Durham, N.C.
Ted Mann, the Duke sports information director, liked to alternate seats in the press box with visiting and home media so they could talk to each other about their respective teams.
Derr happened to be assigned the seat next to Atlanta’s O.B. Keeler, the man who famously chronicled Bobby Jones’ career.
Keeler asked Derr whether he played golf, and Derr told him about the two-hole course his rural mail carrier father built him on his farm in Dallas, N.C., that ran from the tennis court through the apple orchard to the creek and back again.
“I had three balls and two clubs – both 7-irons,” he said.
Keeler suggested Derr come down to Georgia to see this golf tournament that “all the big shots would be playing.”
Have you met Bob Jones?
By chance, two friends the next spring invited him to Augusta to see the second installment of Jones’ invitational tournament.
“I was so dumb I didn’t even know there was anything such as a press badge, and I paid my $2 and got me a ticket,” Derr said.
Fate changed his life that day.
“Lo and behold, the first person I see when I go through the gate is O.B. Keeler,” Derr said. “He said, ‘Oh, I see you made it. Have you seen Bob Jones yet?’ ”
Next thing he knew, Keeler dragged Derr over to meet the Grand Slam winner who founded Augusta National, and Jones took an instant liking to him “for no reason” and established a friendship.
“Mr. Jones said, ‘Have you met Grantland Rice yet?’ ” Derr said. “I told him no, I just got here. So Jones takes me over to meet Granny Rice. ... I was introduced by Bobby Jones to all these people. You can’t have it any better than that. I am so fortunate. You could never plan something like that.”
By Sunday, Derr was part of the press corps stationed on the clubhouse veranda, entranced as he watch legends such as Rice, Keeler and Ralph McGill craft their stories of the Masters.
It was on that veranda where word came from a caddie that Gene Sarazen made a two on 15. Writers immediately dismissed it as a mistake, that he meant 16 instead.
By the time it was confirmed, Derr had the chance to rush down and watch Sarazen play the 18th.
He got eyewitness accounts of the shot that made the Masters famous. The Sunday crowd in 1935 at Augusta had been reduced by overnight rain, and Derr estimates little more than 2,000 patrons were there, and very few were at the 15th hole when Sarazen holed his second shot.
“Sarazen said he’d met 20,000 people who saw it, but there were only 26 and he knew the name of every one of them,” Derr said.
Sarazen knew he needed three birdies on the last four holes to catch leader Craig Wood. His drive on 15 landed in a muddy patch and was partly embedded.
He wanted to hit the 3-wood to reach the green, but his caddie assured him he needed more loft to dig his ball out of the mud.
While they debated which club to hit, playing partner Walter Hagen yelled over, “For God’s sake, quit arguing. I’ve got a girl waiting for me at the 18th green and by the time you’re done arguing she’s going to leave. Hit the ball!”
Knowing he didn’t have enough club to get over the water, Sarazen hit it up the right side to play around the pond and get it as close to the green as possible.
Witnesses by the green said the ball hit “the only rock still on that side” and shot forward enough to reach the edge of the green and roll the final 25 feet into the cup.
In with the founders
That 15th hole became Derr’s Augusta home for the first 22 years the Masters was televised. He broadcast from the tower there from 1956-77.
“The 15th was the first televised hole, and I wanted to set the picture for the groups coming through,” he said. “Felt it was more important to set up the stage for it. When they win the tournament, the story tells itself.”
One day Derr was playing “the big course” at Augusta with Roberts. When they got to the 15th green, he made a request.
“I spent so many years at this hole and loved this little pond, I think I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes spread here at the 15th,” Derr said. “Cliff said, ‘John, Augusta National is a golf course, not a cemetery.’”
A couple of years later, after Roberts committed suicide, Derr asked whether the former chairman had been buried in Augusta or returned to his home.
“Oh no,” Derr was told. “He was cremated and they put his ashes in the pond at 15.”
“Well then, take me away and release me from this place,” Derr said.
When Grantland Rice died, Jones called Derr and asked to use his right arm to steady him as an honorary pallbearer. Others included Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Eddie Arcaro, Casey Stengel, Don Budge and Red Barber.
The New York Times story on Rice’s funeral named all the celebrities in attendance including “celebrated golfer Bobby Jones and an unknown friend.”
“So from that day I became the unknown friend of Bobby Jones,” he said.
Too complex for Einstein
Derr has tons of stories, many of which are documented in his book My Place at the Table. Others, he is happy to share at speaking engagements that can be booked at johnderrsports.com.
There was the time in 1956 when President Eisenhower requested to play with him the Tuesday after the Masters, and Derr had to decline so he could drive home to New Jersey to see his pregnant wife. Ike persuaded him to play nine holes.
“So I walked out on the president at Augusta National ... but for a good reason,” Derr said, adding that the president later sent a letter and gift on the birth of his daughter, Cricket.
Derr played often with Sam Snead, even rooming with him on the road sometimes. He turned down repeated offers to play practice rounds with Ben Hogan before his British Open win at Carnoustie because he remembered Hogan saying he’d “rather be horse-whipped than play in these pro-ams because you spend all your time looking for their balls.”
Derr had lunch with him every day instead.
“That’s an opportunity you don’t get in this day,” he said.
He was lucky enough to spend time with Grace Kelly and ride on the road to the Pebble Beach calcutta drawing seated between Hope and Crosby.
Then there was the time when he was at Princeton to do Ivy League Championship radio between Dartmouth and Princeton. Playing golf on a beautiful November afternoon, he was introduced to Albert Einstein, who was out for his evening walk on the 14th hole.
“Mr. Einstein, do you play golf?” Derr asked.
“No, no,” Einstein said. “Tried it once. Too complicated. I quit.”
“So if Einstein said it was too complicated, what the hell are we doing looking at it?” Derr said.
Still sharp and spry at 95 and living in Pinehurst, N.C., Derr stopped attending the Masters in 2009. He sends a top Eagle Scout in his stead to Augusta with his annual badge.
“I was young when I went, and now he’s going to go,” he said.
Perhaps it might change one of their lives as it did his own.