I am always on the lookout for under-the-radar golf books that don’t receive a lot of fanfare. One recent gem we acquired is My Place at the Table : Stories of Golf and Life by John Derr. The book was published in 2010 by Old Sport Publishing in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
I heard John Derr being interviewed by John Maginnes while riding in my car on satellite radio, where he was talking about the first Masters he attended, in 1935. I was supposed to catch a train into the city, but as I sat listening I was mesmerized. I missed my train, but heard the entire interview. As I listened I was sure it was a taped interview replayed from years ago. To my surprise the interview was live and 95 year old John Derr is still alive and kicking!
As a 17-year old reporter he met Bob Jones, Cliff Roberts, O.B. Keeler and Grantland Rice at that first Masters. Derr would go on to cover a record sixty-two Masters and the club granted him its Major Achievement Award for doing so. What impressed me about Derr was that the man could tell a story and was still sharp as a tack. His book is a series of sixty-eight stories, most of them centered on his interactions with an individual of note. Derr enjoyed a very privileged position, as I have never heard of anyone else Cliff Roberts would invite to his cabin to have tea and crumpets during the Masters, but Derr was.
John is the ultimate raconteur and he has a nose for a story and how to tell it. Among the non-golfing people he met and profiles in the book are Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Yogi Berra, Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi) and Joe DiMaggio.
Derr was an early pioneer in broadcasting golf on both radio and TV. The Jim Nantz of his day, Derr presided over the Masters ceremonies from Butler Cabin at his peak.
Aside from being on the property when Gene Sarazen made his double eagle in 1936, he also accompanied Ben Hogan around Carnoustie every day in 1953. This included the four tournament rounds as well as the two practice rounds and two qualifying rounds. Derr was also at Merion in 1950 when Hogan hit the famous 1-iron to the eighteenth green. What a front row to golf history he was lucky to have.
His stories are varied and interesting. His chapter on Pinehurst’s Richard Tufts explains how it was his idea to build the first driving range. Prior to Pinehurst building a practice area, lessons and warm-ups were done on holes near the clubhouse.
Derr is a walking history of the game and he talks about his visits to the U.S.G.A. headquarters when it was in a small townhouse in New York City and when the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn. Referencing Presidents Hoover, Nixon, and Eisenhower can be tricky, but Derr does it without a sense of name dropping. His humble roots and simple approach shine through in his book. His sense of inquisitiveness is unmatched, and he retains the enthusiasm of a 5-year old ninety years later.