Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Greatest Game Ever Played


The Greatest Game Ever Played didn’t become the greatest movie ever made, as it bombed at the box office without the support of even the most fervent golfer. But it may get more play as a recently released DVD, and the 1913 U.S. Open is one of the greatest games and stories ever lived.

As the Seabiscuit of golf, the story of the 1913 U.S. Open is one for the ages. And like Seabiscuit, Mark Frost’s book The Greatest Game Ever Played (Hyperion, NY, 2002) is better than the movie, if only for the details about some of the most interesting characters you’d ever want to play golf with – Willie Anderson, Willie Parks, Jr., Walter Travis, Johnny McDermott, Walter Hagen, Wilfred Reid, Harry Vardon, Ted Ray - Walter Mitty characters all.

Frost, who worked on television’s Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks, and wrote Grand Slam, a bio of Bobby Jones, correctly recognizes the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club at Brookline as the most significant game of golf ever played. But in focusing his story around British champion Harry Vardon and American amateur Francis Ouimet, as the David and Goliath of golf, he misses the real story of the game – John McDermott.

And he mis-characterizes McDermott as an anti-hero, when in fact he is the real protagonist and pivotal character in the larger, international drama of the game.

Francis Ouimet is the home course caddy and Massachusetts Amateur Champion, who comes in at the end and saves the day for the Americans, but it was Johnny McDermott, the two-time defending champion, who issued the challenge and instigated the cross-the-pond Walker and Ryder Cup rivalries that continues today.

It was McDermott, in the Shawnee-on-the-Delaware locker room a week before the Open, who promised the upstart European champions they weren’t going to take the national championship trophy home with them. It was McDermott who publicly announced that their domination of the game was over, who made the threat, led the charge and took the game of golf from the sports page to the front page. McDermott made golf more than a game, more than a sport – he made golf an issue of national pride on both sides of the Atlantic.

Golf was not a largely popular sport in the early years of the last century, though many of the best players were amateurs, the number of golf professionals were limited.

On the one side you have Vardon, Ray and Wifried Reid, with dozens of championships between them, who routinely took the US Championship whenever they played, and hadn’t bothered to come over to play the previous two years (1911-1912). Both Opens were won by McDermott, the first time when he was nineteen, the youngest ever still to win the national championship. McDermott was also the first native born American, since all the previous U.S. Open championships had been won by expatriate Scotsmen or Englishmen.

With McDermott, among the Americans, were some New England pros, especially Walter Hagen from upstate New York, and amateur champions Jerry Travers and Ouimet.

The first half of Frost’s book is about the buildup to the great game, and all of the main characters have local connections and did time on the local courses, particularly Atlantic City, Seaview and Great Bay.

Vardon gave an exhibition at Atlantic City in 1900, while his greatest rival was Willie Park, Jr., who laid out Great Bay. Their mutual nemesis, Wilfried Reid was a pro at both Seaview and Atlantic City. Walter Travis won the U.S. Amateur at Atlantic City, and Walter Hagen was a barnstorming partner of Atlantic City owner Leo Fraser. McDermott was the pro at Merchantville and Atlantic City when he became the first American and the youngest champion ever.

As described by Frost, "By 1913, this much was clear: Before professional golf would ever be able to capture the imagination of the public at large and win mainstream acceptance as a frontline sport, American golf needed a standard-bearer,….when the moment finally arrived, a nineteen-year-old pro named John J. McDermott from Philadelphia grabbed the ring."

"The blue-collar son of mailman and former caddie, just like Old Tom, Johnny McDermott weighed 125 pounds soaking wet and attacked everything he tried in life like an overmatched, half-blind club fighter trying to slug out the last round of a title fight. Johnny never met a risky, low percentage shot he didn’t immediately take a swing at; his game was a high-wire act relying on white-knuckle nerves, an approach not just to golf, but to life, one for which he would not so many years afterward pay a horrific price."

"John McDermott’s back-to-back Open victories accelerated America’s interest in the sport from a trot to a gallop; for the first time major metropolitan newspapers hired beat writers whose sole responsibility was covering the game. The increased detail of their reportage fueled public awareness, more people came out to watch big tournaments, more ink was spilled reporting the results; each advance in the cycle raked more players into the sport. For Johnny McDermott…. he quickly cleaned up on the business opportunities that came his way, lending his name to the manufacturing of clubs and balls, playing paid exhibitions around the country. Within the year he made two well-publicized trips to England, mixed with the high and mighty of both societies, and invested his newly gotten gains in the stock market. At last it appeared American golf had found the leader it needed."

"Except for one small hiccup: Almost nobody could stand him. A bachelor who still lived at home with his parents, away from the course Johnny by all accounts conducted himself in a sober, gentlemanly manner; too pad they didn’t play golf in a church. Never an accomplished technical player, too small to overpower courses, Johnny McDermott depended entirely on winding himself up into an irrational frenzy against everything around him and then venting his rage like a blast furnace – at the golf course, the officials, the USGA, and his opponent, most particularly if his opponent was foreign-born."

"When he lost that first Open play-off to Scotsman Alex Smith in 1910, McDermott tracked Smith down afterward in the middle of his locker-room celebration, jammed a finger in his face, and stunned everyone within earshot by warning the champ that he intended to beat him senseless next year…."

While all this is true, Frost’s negative characterization of McDermott’s temper, and nerves, vomiting before teeing off and locker room speeches must be considered with the fact that he was only 18 years old when he lost to Alex Smith in the play-off, and he made good on his threat and whooped him like he promised.

And like most 18 year olds, McDermott lived with his family, and dutifully turned his wages over to his mother, but left the home of his alcoholic abusive father as soon as possible and leased a room in a home on Shore Road across the street from the Northfield Links. He didn’t drink and took the trolley to attend mass every morning before starting work in the pro shop and wasn’t like the boozing, broad chasing early Scottish pros – Anderson, Smiths, Vardon, et al., an apparent negative attribute in Frost’s view.

The treatment Travis, McDermott and all the early Americans received when they traveled to England and Scotland set the tone for their attitudes against them, and it took Walter Hagen to break down the barriers the gentlemen of the game set up against the early pros and visiting Yanks. But the rivalry goes on.

The world-wide media and public interest in the game of golf can be traced to the locker room at Shawnee, two weeks before the 1913 US Open when McDermott beat Vardon and Ray by double digits and won the tournament by eight stokes, and then announced, "There’s been a lot of loose talk about the ‘great English champions’ coming over here and competing in our Open. And I just want to say to you boys Welcome, glad you could make it, we’re happy to have you with us. We hope our foreign visitors had a good time here, but I don’t think they did. Mr. Vardon, I understand you won this baby once before. But let me tell you this; you are not going to take our cup back!"

Then, after a USGA official had McDermott apologize personally to Vardon, and shake his hand, as Frost describes the scene, "like a drunk on a bender, unable to pass up that last bar on the corner, McDermott turned back to them and shouted, ‘But you are still not going to take our cup back!"

And they didn’t. At Brookline, after all the other Americans fell behind Vardon and Ray, Ouimet came on. Walking to the tee, tied with two of the greatest golfers who ever lived, Ouimet stopped next to McDermott who told him simply "Pay no attention to Vardon and Ray and play your own game."

On the wall of the Atlantic City Country Club, next to the locker room door, there hung an old photo of the 18 th green at Brookline, crowds in the rain watching Ouimet line up his final putt, Vardon and Ray leaning helplessly on their clubs, the defining moment of golf in this century.

While Ouimet made the putt, Johnny McDermott is the forgotten American hero who gave his all to the game, including his life.

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