The Legend of Johnny McDermott – America’s Forgotten Golf Hero
John J. McDermott - America’s Forgotten Hero
From: Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club (1997) Chapter 10
John J. McDermott
Atlantic City Country Club Pro 1911 – 1914
At 19 years of age, John McDermott remains the youngest player to have won the U.S. Open Championship, and he did it twice, back-to-back 1911 – 1912, and in doing so ended an era of foreign domination of the game.
The legend of Johnny McDermott espouses the spirit of a young America – the spunky, brash teenager who finally beat the Europeans at their own game. And his name will never be eclipsed in the record book because he was the first, the first American, the first American to repeat, the first to break par and the youngest.
Born on August 12, 1891 in West Philadelphia, the son of a mailman, John Joseph McDermott, Jr. was introduced to the game of golf when he was nine years old while visiting his grandfather’s farm, located just across the road from the Old Aronimink Golf Club.
McDermott became a caddy, dutifully passing on his tips to his mother, dropped out of high school and later said, "I cast my lot early with the pros."
Aronimink pro Walter Reynolds took McDermott under his wind, taught him the game, encouraged him to become a skilled clubmaker, and helped him land jobs, is first as an assistant at the Merchantville Golf Club in Camden County, New Jersey.
In 1909 he finished fourth in the Philadelphia Open and fourth again in his first U.S. Open, but McDermott teed off virtually unnoticed at the 1910 U.S. Open, held over the Philadelphia Cricket Club course in Chestnut Hill. At the end, McDermott found himself in a three-way playoff with legendary brothers MacDonald and Alex Smith, from Carnoustie, Scotland. Thirty-eight year old Alex Smith won that match, but McDermott caught the world’s attention by beating Mac Smith by two.
McDermott’s sister Gertrude said, "Dad was surprised to see his son’s name in the headlines because we didn’t even know Johnny was in the tournament. We were proud of him, including my father."
After becoming the first Philadelphian to win the Philadelphia Open in 1910, the eighteen year old, five-foot eight, 135 pound McDermott had established himself locally as well and took a full professional position when Bill Robinson left the Atlantic City Country Club in 1911.
In his book The U.S. Open: Golf’s Ultimate Challenge, Robert Sommers wrote, "McDermott was a quiet, mannerly young man; he didn’t drink or smoke, and he rarely missed Sunday mass." What McDermott did have was a passion for golf.
According to his sister Alice, "He boarded in a house across the road from the Atlantic City Country Club and he followed the same routine every day. He would be on the practice field as soon as it was light, about 5 a.m. and hit shots until 8 a.m. when he opened the pro shop. After his day’s teaching, he would go out and play. Often he told us, he finished in twilight with somebody holding a lantern. On Saturday nights he would go to Atlantic City and take a hotel room just so he could attend 6 o’clock Mass because the church near the club didn’t have mass until 11 o’clock. Right after Mass, John got the first trolley to Northfield and he practiced until 8 o’clock."
After winning the Philadelphia Open and tying the Smith brothers for the national championship, McDermott looked towards the 1911 U.S. Open with confidence. He told others in the Atlantic City locker room that, "the foreigners are through." As he was leaving the clubhouse he turned to his assistant and said, "You’re carrying the clubs of the next Open champion."
And he lived up to his word. At the 1911 U.S. Open in Chicago McDermott missed an opportunity to take the championship outright and faltered into a three-way playoff, all tied at 307 after 72 holes, but he won the playoff by two strokes. By doing so he became the first American-born champion, and at nineteen, the youngest.
"He ended the domination of immigrant British golfers," wrote Sommers, "and was leading a wave of young homebreds…who were to revolutionize the way the game was played….McDermott’s victory had not only shown that American-born golfers could outplay the best of the imports, it also quickened interest in the Open."
The following year a record 131 players entered the 1912 Open at the Country Club of Buffalo, where McDermott won with a final round 71. The previous rounds of 74 – 75 – 74 gave McDermott a 294, and yet another first – the first to score under par over 72 holes.
McDermott won the Open twice before he had reached the age of twenty-one, and was being compared to (four time Open winner) Willie Anderson. "There seemed to be no limit to what he might accomplish," wrote Sommers. "He was doing well financially: clubs were marketed under his name, he endorsed balls, played exhibition matches, gave lessons, and invested his money. The world was a lovely place."
"To our off-side way of thinking," Grantland Rice said, "John was the greatest golfer American has ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness and all around skill from the tee to the green. McDermott had no weakness in any part of his game and, what is more to the point, he as pretty sure to be at this best under the heaviest fire."
His fortunes appeared to take a turn for the better at the 1913 British Open when he finished fifth overall, the first time an American broke into the top British ranks. Then fate would deal McDermott a cruel hand."
In 1913 McDermott held many crowns – he was the two-time defending U.S. Open champion and he had won the Western Open, then a major tournament, but all roads were leading towards the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts.
There was great anticipation for the showdown between McDermott and the great British pro Harry Vadon, on one of his tours of the states. The last time Vardon came to America he took home the 1900 U.S. Open Championship almost as a matter of routine. Vardon was the odds on favorite, along with Ted Ray, then the British Open champion.
Before Brookline however, Vardon and Ray entered a tournament at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, which attracted nearly the same field as the U.S. Open. McDermott won easily, shooting eight strokes better than runner-up Alex Smith, and thirteen strokes better than Vardon. McDermott was the only one in the field to break 300 with a 292.
In the course of victory McDermott was lifted into the air and made a quick speech, the exact words having been lost in the retelling of the tale. In the New York papers, McDermott was quoted as rudely saying, "We hope our foreign visitors had a good time, but we don’t think they did, and we are sure they won’t win the National Open."
McDermott later claimed he said, "I wish Ray and Vardon great success, but the people of this country needn’t worry or fear as to the cup going to the other side. The professional golfers are able enough to take care of the trophy and protect it as conditions are all in their favor, just as much as they were the visitors’ favor on their home courses across the pond."
McDermott was not aware that he had said anything wrong and when he was told, he tried to apologize. "I am broken-hearted over the affair," McDermott said, "and the way the papers used my speech." No harm was meant and I am certainly sorry that my talk has been taken up by this manner." But the New York press and the British reporters played it up to the point where the U.S. Open would be covered by more than just sports writers and golf would break onto the front page once again.
A.W. Tillinghast later said that both Englishmen accepted the apology, "because they realized Johnny was flush with victory, young and comparatively uneducated." Te older men may have been understanding, but others were not so forgiving. In his defense McDermott said, "I have been horribly misquoted and people not cognizant of the true facts are censuring me right and left. The correspondents as well as some of the golfers at Shawnee took up my words in the wrong light and this caused all the trouble."
With a strong field that included Walter Hagen, Vardon, Ray and Wilfred Reid, later an Atlantic City pro, the 1913 U.S. Open is said to have been the best golf championship ever played. It ended in a three-way play-off between Vardon, Ray and a young American, Francis Ouimet, who until a few weeks before had worked as a caddy over the Brookline course.
While he missed the hat trick of three consecutive U.S. Open championships, McDermott did help coach the young American amateur who kept McDermott’s promise that the foreign visitors wouldn’t win the National Open that year. "Just play your own game," McDermott told Ouimet as he walked up to the first tee, "pay no attention to Vardon and Ray."
On their tour of the states, Vardon and Ray won every match, except for the one loss to McDermott at Shawnee, so when they found themselves up against the twenty-year old Ouimet, who they never heard of before, they assumed it was a match between the two of them, as did most of the world. The Massachusetts State Amateur champion, who lived across the street from the course and was only allowed in to play at the last moment to round out the field, went on to win, up by more than a few strokes as he holed his last putt on the eighteenth green in the rain.
McDermott took a vacation in Florida, where he worked as a teaching pro at some of the more exclusive hotels, sometimes earning as much as $100 a lesson from students with names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. McDermott seemed to regain his confidence and entered the British Open, but he never teed off. He missed a train and channel ferry and the tournament was already in underway when he arrived.
So McDermott booked passage home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, a German passenger liner billed as the "majestic speed queen of the North Atlantic." McDermott was in a barber’s chair when the Kaiser Wilhelm collided with the Incemore, an English grain vessel.
A steward reportedly led McDermott to a lifeboat, along with the other 800 passengers. McDermott drifted in the ocean fog for some twenty hours before he was rescued. While no one lost their lives as a result of the tragedy, McDermott could never seem to shake the incident. While he seemed unharmed, the experience affected him more than anyone realized. His sister Gertrude later said, "It was like the last straw. Everything had hit him within a year, and it was all bad."
The series of events over that year, from his stock loses, the incident at Shawnee, the loss at the U.S. Open, missing the British Open, then the shipwreck, they all seemed to prey on his mind. He entered the 1914 Open, but by then his spirit was shattered, and he was never in position to win. As James Finegan described the situation, "Johnny entered the 1914 U.S. Open, but the indomitable – some would say abrasive – self confidence that had always marked his demeanor was nowhere in evidence. Never in contention, he finished at 300, 10 strokes behind Walter Hagen, whose victory was his first national championship."
In mid-October, McDermott blacked out in the professional’s shop at Atlantic City Country Club. He was put to bed, and on October 31, Halloween night, his parents were notified of his sickness and he was taken home. In early December he resigned his job.
In a special dispatch datelined Northfield, N.J. December 5, 1914, it was announced, "MCDERMOTT RETIRES FROM SEASHORE JOB. Noted Golfer Leaves Atlantic City Country Club – Sticks Are Sent Home. Friends say McDermott will quit the game for awhile." At the age of twenty-three, Johnny McDermott’s career was over, his promise left unfulfilled. His father convinced him to enter a hospital and he spent the rest of his life in rest homes taking an endless series of treatments.
While McDermott never played another official tournament, he did play golf, as a sort of therapy. For his personal use, as well as a few doctors who had caught the golf bug, a makeshift, six hole course was haphazardly laid out over the grounds of the Norristown Hospital.
When McDermott was committed as "a lunatic," his sister was required to pay $1.75 a week to support him. Ten years later, in 1924, a pro-am tournament was played at Philmont for the "J.J. McDermott Fund," while another group of golfers in New York quickly raised $1,500, with donations from Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Joe Kirkwood and AL Jolson. In later years, Leo Fraser did what he could to ensure McDermott’s well being.
McDermott did get off the hospital grounds on occasion, when his sisters would pick him up and escort him to a tournament or to play a round at a local golf course – Valley Forge was a favorite, where the local golf professional looked after him. And by all reports he continued to play well into his twilight years. In December, 1924 McDermott teamed up with William "Zimmer" Platt at Whitemarsh in a better-ball match against two professionals, Bob Peters and Johnny’s longtime friend, Morrie Talman.
As one report described it, "The game was played under winter conditions and McDermott would have none of winter rules. He scorned to touch his ball through the fairway, yet nothing higher than a five marred his card….After the match McDermott went back to the hospital, his vacation was for only one day."
One afternoon in 1928 Walter Hagen visited McDermott and played a round with him over the hospital grounds. When Hagen asked his opinion about the current quality of players, McDermott replied, "the courses may be more difficult, but the players are better." But he wasn’t ready to leave the hospital. "I don’t think I ever saw a more beautiful view than from here. I think its fine," he said. As his parting words, McDermott told Hagen, "Tell the boys I’m getting along just fine."
McDermott did play again, but he didn’t play often, especially after his clubs were stolen in April, 1949. One report noted, "Stolen from an automobile, the golf clubs used by John J. McDermott when he won the U.S. Open title in 1911-12’, might be worth a dollar loan to a reckless pawn broker, but to a collector of golf treasures, they would be relics beyond price. To John McDermott they were the rods and staffs that comforted him in old age."
There were about 16 clubs in the stolen bag, but only about six figured in his game. He used a cleek and the equivalent of a four, five and nine irons, light and heavy mashies and a niblick.
According to the Valley Forge pro, Elwood Poore, "You must play a round with him to get your fill of amazement. He’s a holdover from the days when good golfers played with more skill than science. Except on the greens he’s almost a cinch to be using the wrong club but he’s also a cinch for the low eighties. I believe every word they say about his mania for practice. He hardly ever mentions the old days except when something happens to light up a dim picture. For example – once we started out round to clear weather and half way through it blew up raw with rain in our faces and he said, "This reminds me of an experience I had at Muirfeld (Scotland) – cold and raw and I could not get any feeling of the club."
"He plays by the rules as he knew them," said Poore, "still drops a ball over his shoulder after an out of bounds shot off the tee. In casual water he plays the lie as he finds it. The caddy never lest on when he selects the wrong club."
Philadelphia C.C. pro Tim DeBaufre played a round with McDermott at Overbrook in 1961. "I was a young assistant pro at the time," DeBaufre recalls, "and the pro told me to go out and play with him. He didn’t talk too much, but I do remember that after he teed off he played with a two wood every where, but he got bad lies, mainly in the rough, and didn’t do very good."
McDermott’s sister took him out to some major tournaments when they were held nearby. At one PGA championship, a young assistant pro ordered McDermott out of the pro shop because he was in the way. He was incredulous when someone said, "Do you know you just kicked a two-time winner of the U.S. Open out of the pro shop?"
McDermott’s sister later said that the only time she ever saw her brother cry was when he was named to the golf Hall of Fame, taking his place among the immortals – Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen.
Stan Dudas recalled McDermott visiting the Atlantic City Country Club in 1965. A photo on the taproom wall shows Leo Fraser with John McDermott and Harry Cooper. Dudas recalled playing a round with him.
"We played," Dudas recalled, "but he didn’t say much. He still did things the old way, without a tee. He’d push a little sand or grass together to form a little clump and put his ball down on that. But he was very good, you could tell he was a champion."
McDermott saw his last Open at the Merion Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania in 1971. Standing unobtrusively in his rumpled suit and tie, he was recognized by Arnold Palmer, the 1960 U.S. Open champion. "How’s your game these days?" Palmer asked the old champion.
"I’m hitting the ball good," McDermott said, "but my putting is not what it should be."
Palmer smiled, put his arms around McDermott’s shoulders and said, "I know exactly what you mean….The only thing we can do is keep practicing."
Shortly thereafter, on Sunday morning, August 1, 1971 Johnny McDermott died quietly in his sleep, eleven days shy of his eightieth birthday. The Philadelphia Inquirer, on August 2, simply reported "Yeadon Man Dies, Won Open."
John J. McDermott was the first American and the best of his day, and could have been the greatest of all time. He remains the youngest player to win the U.S. Open National Championship.
– By William Kelly
The legend of Johnny McDermott cannot be exaggerated. He espoused the spirit of America as the spunky, brash, young teenager who finally beat the Europeans at their own game.
Americans might have won the Revolution, but they couldn’t beat the British and Scotts at golf until McDermott came along. He was the first American, and at nineteen, still the youngest to win the U.S. Open, and he did it twice, back-to-back in 1911 and 1912.
John J. McDermott first appeared on the national scene at the U.S. Open in 1910 when he found himself in a three way playoff with brothers McDonald and Alex Smith, who hailed from Carnoustie, Scotland. Alex won that match, but the eighteen year old McDermott, while losing the game to a thirty eight year old professional, caught the world’s attention by beating Mac Smith by two.
The son of a Philadelphia mailman, McDermott was a good student but dropped out of West Philadelphia high school to work as a caddy at Aronomick Country Club, where he was first introduced to the game. After working at the Merchantville Field Club in Camden County, New Jersey, and making a name for himself in tournament play, also winning the 1910 Philadelphia Open, McDermott took the golf professional position at the prestigious Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield.
"McDermott was a quite, mannerly, young man," says Robert Sommers ( in The U.S. Open: Golf’s Ultimate Challenge, Athenaeum, N.Y. 1987), "he didn’t drink or smoke, and he rarely missed Sunday mass."
McDermott did have a passion for golf. "Johnny drove himself," wrote Sommes. "He began the day’s practice at dawn, often at five o’clock, when he opened the shop. After closing late in the afternoon he played until dark, then practiced putting by lamp light. McDermott’s mashie became the stuff of legend. He practiced by hitting shots at a large tarpaulin spread out on the ground about 150 yards away, reducing the target gradually to spread out newspapers."
"The more he practiced the better and more confident he became. Early in 1911 he challenged Philadelphia professionals to eighteen hole matches for $1,000 each. After he won three straight, the competition dried up. By then McDermott was definitely ready for bigger things."
After winning the Philadelphia Open (which he did three times), and tying the Smith’s for the Open championship, McDermott arrived at the 1911 U.S. Open in Chicago to find himself up against Alex Ross (from Dornoch, Scotland), George Simpson and Mike Brady. After missing an opportunity to take the championship outright, he faltered into a three way playoff with Simpson and Brady.
"Johnny normally played a Rawlings Black Circle ball," wrote Sommers, "but when a manufacturer offered a $300 bonus if the playoff winner used a brand called the Colonial, he switched, then hit two of them out of bounds from the 1st tee….Neither Brady nor Simpson was a match for McDermott this day though." He beat Brady by two and Simpson by six, becoming the first American born champion, and at nineteen, the youngest as well.
"He had ended the domination of immigrant British golfers," wrote Sommers, "and was leading a wave of young homebreds…who were to revolutionize the way the game was played….McDermott’s victory had not only shown that American born golfers could outplay the best of the imports, it also quickened interest in the Open."
The following year the 1912 Open moved to Buffalo, New York, where McDermott trailed Brady and Alex Smith by two strokes after two rounds. "Brady had a wretched start in the afternoon," wrote Sommers, "and McDermott continued to attack…At the 155-yard sixteenth, McDermott hit a tee shot that covered the flagstick all the way and came down only a few yards from the hole. Using the style of putting that had developed in the United States – heels together, erect stance, pendulum stroke – McDermott rolled the ball dead into the heart of the hole for a birdie 2."
That gave him a three stroke lead with two holes to play, permitting him to go on to take the round with a 71, and win the championship with a 294.
"Never had American golfers seen such sensational scoring…McDermott was clearly the better golfer. He had now won the Open twice before he had reached the age of twenty-one, and he was being compared to Willie Anderson. There seemed to be no limit to what he might accomplish. He was doing well himself financially: Clubs were marketed under his name, he endorsed balls, played exhibition matches, gave lessons, and invested his money. The world was a lovely place."
But 1913 was an unlucky year for McDermott. With Brady and McNamara, McDermott traveled to Holyoke in England for the British Open. The year before he had arrived at Muirfield as the brash American champion and announced that he came to win, an attitude that ruffled the feathers of the stuffy English. He did well in practice, but then failed to qualify and was gone before the game began.
"Some of McDermott’s problems," Sommers wrote, "had been caused by his method of striking the ball. Americans by then had developed their own type of golf swing, a long, loose, flowing motion somewhat like the old St. Andrews swing of the feather ball period., but with more body turn. Because it emphasized a flattish motion, it often caused a hook, which Johnny couldn’t control at Muirfield. The British swing, on the other hand, was shorter, with a restricted follow through that made more use of the arms and wrists. Johnny’s swing was well under control at Hoylake." He finished fifth overall, the best an American had ever done.
"Just as life was looking ever brighter, though, Johnny McDermott’s good times were ending. When he arrived home, he was shaken to learn he had lost heavily in some stock transactions. He kept the news from his family – he was a bachelor and lived with his sisters and their parents, but he brooded so much they knew something was wrong. Other problems deepened his depression."
The 1913 Open was held at the same time as the great British golfer Harry Vardon was on one of his occasional tours of the states, this time accompanied by Ted Ray, the winner of the 1912 British Open. Varden and Ray entered a tournament at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, which attracted nearly the same field as the U.S. Open. McDermott shot eight strokes better than runner-up Alex Smith, and thirteen strokes better than Vardon, one of the greatest British players of all time. Ray was a stroke behind Vardon."
"McDermott was boosted on a chair at the presentation ceremony and the crowd called for a speech…Cocky to the point of arrogance," wrote Sommers, "McDermott was quoted as saying, ‘We hope our foreign visitors had a good time, but we don’t think they did, and we are sure they won’t win the National Open.’"
"The crowd was stunned," Sommers noted. "The Englishmen’s faces flushed, but they said nothing. Trying to smooth things over, their friends only added to the embarrassment. American players seemed more indignant than the foreign born pros; they felt the remarks were particularly ungracious coming from McDermott, since the British had received him so cordially on his two visits."
"American professionals can be sure of a cool reception abroad for years to come," one of them remarked, but McDermott had not been aware that he had said anything wrong. When he was told, he tried to apologize. "The older men were understanding. Realizing that Johnny was young and flushed with victory, they accepted the apology. Others were not so forgiving." The USGA sent McDermott a letter regarding his "extreme discourtesy" and threatened to reject his entry in the U.S. Open, even though he was the two time defending champion.
"Even though his entry was accepted," says Sommers, "he was depressed when he went to Boston for the championship, which was out of character for him, but he was such a great player he missed tying for first place by only four strokes."
While McDermott missed the hat trick of three consecutive U.S. Open championships, he did help Francis Ouimet, the young American amateur who grew up on the Country Club at Brookline course and kept McDermott’s promise that the foreign visitors wouldn’t take the national championship trophy home with them that year.
On their tour of the states Vardon and Ray won every match, except for the loss to McDermott at Shawnee. Near the end of the Open, Vardon and Ray found themselves in a three way tie with Ouimet, the twenty year old Massachusetts state amateur champion, who lived across the street from the country club. He was invited to play to build up the amateur ranks.
The next morning, before the start of the playoff round, as Ouimet walked towards the first tee, Johnny McDermott took his arm and said, "You’re hitting the ball well; now go out and play your own game and pay no attention to Vardon and Ray."
"As Francis teed up his ball and saw the large gallery crowding around him, he felt his first tinge of excitement," wrote Sommers. "It was as if at last he had realized both what he might accomplish and what he was up against. Vardon and Ray weren’t concerned about him; they were confident the championship would be settled between them, and at first they paid him little attention."
"He remembered McDermott’s advice, and as the holes flew by, the crowd grew to enormous proportions. Some estimated 10,000 spectators crowded around the three golfers as marshals armed with megaphones shouted them into order." By the tenth hole, Ouimet took the lead for the first time.
"Vardon was stunned," said Sommers. "He was even more shocked when Ouimet increased his lead…The crowd had barely been held in check through those final moments, and now, as Francis, his knees trembling, holed that final putt, it broke loose and swarmed around him, a few men lifted him onto their shoulders and paraded him around the grounds…"
John J. McDermott and Francis Ouimet were national heroes, and because of their roles in the 1911-12 and 1913 Opens, McDermott and Ouimet are credited with making golf a popular spectator as well as participant sport.
After returning to Atlantic City, McDermott took a vacation to Florida, seemed to regain his confidence, and entered the British Open that year.
But, "He didn’t even tee off," notes Sommers. "He missed the ferry….and the round was already underway when he arrived. "Understanding officials offered to let him play even though he was late. Johnny refused, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the other players. Downcast, he booked passage home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II."
McDermott was in the barber’s chair of the ocean liner when, in a thick fog, the Kaiser Wilhelm collided with the Incemore, ripped it’s hull beneath the waterline, and began to sink. "A steward led him to a lifeboat, and he was picked up a few hours later and returned to England. While he seemed unharmed, the experience affected him more than anyone realized."
"This series of events over the last year," explained Sommers, "his stock collapse, the incident at Shawnee, then the shipwreck, preyed on his mind. He entered the 1914 Open, but by then his spirit was shattered, and he was never in position to win. Later that season he blacked out as he entered the professional’s shop at Atlantic City. Only twenty-three, his career was finished. He was taken to his parent’s home in Philadelphia and spent the rest of his life in and out of rest homes taking an endless series of treatments. He never played in another golf tournament, although he watched a few. He saw his last Open in 1971 at the Merion Golf Club, close to his home in Philadelphia. Not long afterward he died, quietly and in his sleep. He would have been eighty within a month. He could have been the greatest of them all."
Today, John J. McDermott remains the youngest U.S. National Open Champion.
Editors Note: In this article, originally published in Golfer's Tee Times in April, 1995, I utilized a single source, Sommers history of the U.S. Open. Afterwards, I wrote The Birth of the Birdie - A History of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club, which includes a chapter on McDermott that utilized additional sources. I also wrote another profile on McDermott for Afluent Golfer Magazine. I will post both the chapter on McDermott from the book and the article in AGM when I have a chance.