Sunday, May 8, 2011
BIRTH OF THE BIRDIE - ATLANTIC CITY COUNTRY CLUB
Birth of the Birdie
Except for the whistle of a strong bay breeze, all fell quiet as Abner "Ab" Smith lined up his shot down the long twelfth fairway at the Atlantic City Country Club. It was late in the afternoon on a windy, but mild Saturday, a typical winter weekend outing for the group from suburban Philadelphia who frequented the Jersey Shore course when their home fairways were covered with snow.
Smith slowly took up is backswing, then let go with a wallop, putting the ball on the green, inches from the hole allowing for an easy putt and a one-under-par for the hole. It was such a fine shot that someone in the group was moved to say it was a "bird of a shot."
With the putt, Smith won the hole in one-under-par, and because the players were playing for a ball-a-hole, they then agreed to double the wager on a hole where a golfer who hits such a "bird of shot" wins with a one-under-par "birdie."
Thus began a tradition at the club, and the coining of a new term. Visitors who learned of the local "birdie" tradition took it back to their home clubs and it eventually spread around the world. It would become universal in its meaning and usage.
The term "birdie" is one word in the English language that can be traced back to the original moment in time and place when it was first used. Even the green where the celebrated first birdie occurred has been preserved for posterity. It’s the same hole where Ab Smith and is cronies made golf history, although they didn’t realize it at the time.
"It’s all well documented," assured Kenny Robinson, the long time caddymaster and pro shop manager.
That the term "birdie" is of American origin or that it was coined at the Atlantic City Country Club is undisputed, though some of the details have shifted in the sands of time.
In Country Life magazine, on September 20, 1913, famed British golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote, "It takes a day or two for the English onlooker [in the U.S.] to understand that….a ‘birdie’ is a hole done in a stroke under par."
In 1936, H.B. Martin, in his Fifty Years of American Golf, quotes Ab Smith himself, while playing a threesome, taking credit for not only hitting the ‘bird of a shot,’ but making the exclamation and suggesting it be paid double the bet, as well as calling it a "birdie."
Smith also claimed the incident occurred in 1899. According to Smith, "…my ball…came to a rest within six inches of the cup. I said, ‘that was a bird of a shot,’…. ‘I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in one under par he receives double compensation.’ The other two agreed and we began right away, just as soon as the next one came, to call it a ‘birdie.’"
Charles Price, a longtime member of the Atlantic City Country Club, who wrote about the incident in his book The World of Golf, also notched the year as 1899, and repeated a patently untrue account of Smith’s ball hitting a bird in flight.
Price, "…To…the abomination in the eyes of the British, Americans added a term of their own – ‘birdie,’ or one less than par for a hole. This expression was coined in 1899 at The Country Club of Atlantic City. It seems that one day three golfers – Ab Smith, his brother William, and George Crump, who was later to build Pine Valley about forty-five miles away – were playing together when rump hit his second shot only inches from the cup on a par-four hole after his first had struck a bird in flight."
Simultaneously," wrote Price, "the Smith brothers exclaimed that Crump’s shot was a ‘bird.’ Crump’s short putt left him one under par for the hole, and from that day the three of them referred to such a score as a ‘birdie.’ In short order, the entire membership of the club began using the term, and since, as a resort, the club had a lot of out-of-town visitors, the expression soon spread and caught the fancy of all American golfers. From ‘birdie’ there naturally followed such blasphemous Americanizations as ‘double-bogey’ and ‘eagle.’"
Atlantic City Press sports editor Ed Nichterlien wrote, "The incident that produced the term involved a four-some of William and George Crump, A. W. Tillinghast and Abner ‘Ab’ Smith. Ab hit his second shot on the second hold barely inches from the cup," related Nickerlien, "and one of the brothers remarked that he had hit a ‘bird of a shot.’ Since it enabled Ab to complete the hole in one-under-par, it was decided to call a one-under-par hole a ‘birdie,’ and to compensate the man who scored it by paying him double that hole. The term ‘eagle’ (for two under par) naturally followed, - likewise of Atlantic City coinage."
The April, 1991 issue of Golf Digest contains a story on the origin of golf terms by Jock Howard, an editor at Golf World United Kingdom: "It is entirely fitting that an out door cross-country sport such as golf should be full of imagery….It is only comparatively recently that women have had a monopoly on the term.," wrote Howard, in regards to the British custom of referring to women as ‘birds.’
Howard explained, "If you were in an exceptionally smart or accomplished person living in the Thirteenth century England your friends might refer to you as a bird. To be a bird was to be suave and sophisticated, polished and generally a good egg. Towards the end of the Nineteenth century, bird was American slang used frequently to describe a person or thing of excellence, such as, ‘He is a perfect bird of a man.’"
As for the golf term, Howard relates, "Bird was reputed to have been first used in connection with golf at the Atlantic City Country Club in New Jersey in 1903. An American called Ab Smith was playing a par 4 when he hit his second shot stiff to the hole. He turned to his partners and shouted joyfully, ‘That’s a bird of a shot!’"
Since Atlantic City became a major resort town, people came from all over America and the world to vacation, and those who played golf went to the Atlantic City Country Club, where they learned of the local tradition, picked up the term and took it with them back to their home course.
The earliest recorded published reference is believed to have been in McCleans Magazine in 1911, when it was reported, "….Lansborough followed with a bird, straight down the course about 215 yards."
It was first used in print to refer to a one-under par in the Glasgow Herald some years later: "Brown squared with a birdie three at the second."
The term "eagle," for two-under par, also has an Atlantic City Country Club origin, and first saw print in 1922.
Closest to the truth is probably A.W. Tillinghast’s version, published in the April, 1933 issue of Golf Ilustrated, thirty years after the event occurred. Tillinghast recalled that they were playing winter golf, probably on a Saturday, when his group of regulars from the ‘Quaker’ City (of Philadelphia) arrived at the Shore by train. The year was 1903.
"Now instead of playing the conventional two or four ball encounters," Tillinghast wrote, "we had drifted to the habit of all playing together if we were less than a dozen….Thus originated a sort of mob golf, which became known about the country as a ‘Philadelphia Ballsome,’ for stakes were usually a ball or two for each hole."
"It came to pass that we were playing the long twelfth hole (in the order at the time), with a keen following wind. The hole usually played as a three-shotter, but on this occasion someone got away two screamers and got home in two. As the second shot hit the green either Bill Smith or his brother Ab exclaimed: ‘That’s a bird!’."
"Immediately the other remarked that such an effort that resulted in cutting par by a stroke should be rewarded doubly, and there on the spot it was agreed that thereafter this should be done. And so it was, the exclamation of Smith, giving the name, Bird, which gradually was to become a term of the game, used wherever it is played today."
Tillinghast remembers little more than the foursome, and doesn’t know if it was George Crump or his brother Bill who made the remark.
Kenny Robinson explained that the original ‘long twelfth hole’ that Tillinghast refers to eventually became the second hole when the course was redesigned in the early 20s. In 1946, when Leo Fraser became the owner, the legendary green was kept intact as a practice green, as it is today. According to Robinson, "Leo Fraser kept the hole as it was because he recognized it as the historic site where the term birdie first originated."
Today a plaque marks the spot where Ab Smith made the first "bird of a shot," now used as the practice green.
[Originally published in Golfer’s Tee Times (Vol. 1 #1), and as Chapter 9 of the book Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at the Atlantic City Country Club, by William Kelly, 1997]
John McDermott's US Open Medal and signature club
The first American golf star: the tragic tale of John J. McDermott
By MICHAEL K. BOHN
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Published: Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2011 - 1:00 am
The U.S. Open, America's national championship in golf, is about to tee off at tony Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and the championship is attracting the world's best players. But American golf's cognoscenti wince when reminded that five of the top 10 players in the World Golf Ranking are from the United Kingdom, including Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, No. 1 and No. 2.
This is not the first British invasion of U. S. golf, though. Americans shouted "the British are coming" in the early years of the U. S. Open. English and Scottish golfers, either immigrants or visiting players, won the first 16 U. S. Opens, 1895-1910. The first American-born player to break Great Britain's grip on the trophy was teenager John J. McDermott, who won the title 100 years go in 1911.
His is a story of both triumph and despair. He not only won two straight U. S. Opens but also led the way for multiple generations of golf professionals in the United States. They were men who learned the game in a caddy yard and scraped out a living in the golf shop or by meager tournament purses. Those who followed - Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson - didn't play at their parents' private clubs or season their game in junior and college golf. Those players left a legacy, one of hard work and grit that started with Johnny McDermott.
Tragically though, McDermott fell victim to mental illness only two years after winning his second title. He would spend the rest of his life grappling with the horror of a tormented mind.
Golf arrived permanently in America in 1888, and within a few years, enough gentlemen were playing the game to warrant the first national amateur championship in 1895 at Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island. The sponsoring organization, the U. S. Golf Association, also scheduled, almost as an afterthought, a companion open championship that golf professionals could enter.
With "homebred" pros still but sprouts on the green, British pros dominated the field in the Open's early years. They had crossed the pond in droves to help the former colonials learn the game, make and repair clubs, and transplant the traditions of the sport.
Englishman Horace Rawlings, an assistant pro at Newport, won the inaugural tournament. Other ex-pat Brits continued to win each year, with the notable exception in 1900 when the visiting Englishman Harry Vardon beat his fellow countryman J. H. Taylor by two strokes. The first homebred to mount a serious challenge was Tom McNamara, who finished second in 1909.
That same year 17-year-old Johnny McDermott, a New Jersey pro, entered his first Open. The youngster placed 49th in a field of 60, shooting 322 over four rounds, 32 strokes behind the winner, Englishman George Sargent.
McDermott, the son of a west Philadelphia mailman, started caddying as a kid at the original Aronimink Golf Club a few blocks from his home. When not looping, Johnny laid out a practice area near the 7th fairway, using tin cans for cups. At 16 in 1908, he became a pro and by the next year, he was working at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
According to Rhonda Glenn's recent profile for USGA, McDermott practiced during the season from dawn to 8:00 a.m. when he opened the golf shop. After business slowed later in the day, the teenager played until dark. He reportedly practiced hitting his mashie shots 150 yards to a target of a spread-out newspaper.
Golf dominated the young man's life, and Johnny put aside the pursuits of others his age. "He rarely drank, and though an excellent dancer, he seldom dated," wrote James Finegan in his authoritative history of Philadelphia golf. Nevertheless, McDermott was a feisty and competitive player.
Hoping for a better showing than the year before, McDermott entered the 1910 Open at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in St. Martins, just six miles north of his old neighborhood. By the end of the first two rounds on Friday, June 17, the Scot Alex Smith led with 73-73 - 146. McDermott surprised the other players by sitting in a tie for second with 74-74 - 148.
The third and fourth rounds yielded what a reporter called a "triple tie." Smith, his brother MacDonald Smith, and McDermott all had posted a 6-over 298. The New York Times acknowledged young Johnny's fine play. "The sensation of the tournament was McDermott of Merchantville, who surprised the experts with the quality of his play. Two years ago he was a caddy and turned professional, and was practically unknown to the majority of the professionals."
Religious customs then prohibited tournament golf on Sundays, so the three men teed off in an 18-hole playoff on Monday, June 20. Alex Smith won with a 2-under 71, followed by McDermott with a 75, and Mac at 77. Alex won $300 and Johnny took home $150, about $3,500 today.
Afterward, Smith offered his hand, and according to the Times' John Kieran, he said, "Hard luck, kid."
"I'll get you next year," Johnny retorted and refused the handshake.
After becoming the pro at New Jersey's Atlantic City Country Club in early 1911, McDermott made a brash prediction there. According to Glenn, he offered a forecast for that year's Open. "The foreigners are through." Later, to a caddy, he claimed, "You're carrying the clubs of the next champion."
At Atlantic City, McDermott fine-tuned his game to the point that he soon sought out high stakes challenge matches, a common practice in golf since the game's inception 600 years ago. Author Robert Sommers and other writers report that McDermott offered to take on any player for $1,000 wager. Three other pros accepted and lost before other takers backed away.
In the 1911 Open at the Chicago Golf Club, McDermott's prophecy seemed doomed after his dismal first-round 81. He rallied for a tidy 72 in the afternoon, but trailed the leaders by five strokes. Rain fell throughout the second day, however McDermott shot a respectable 75-79 - 154 to tie Mike Brady and George Simpson at 307 at the end of regulation play. Defending champion Alex Smith trailed the leaders by 14 strokes.
A gallery of 400 followed the playoff on June 26, but disappointing play by all three pros failed to excite the fans. McDermott was least bad and his 80 beat Brady by two and Simpson by five. Young Johnny had become the first American-born player to win the U. S. Open. At 19 years, 10 months, he remains the youngest player to win the title.
Buoyed by his success in Chicago, McDermott traveled to golfdom's headwaters for the 1912 Open Championship on the Muirfield links in Gullane, Scotland. His 91-81 - 172 in the qualifying rounds didn't make the cut, and he quietly packed his bags.
By 1912, golf's newest ball was in widespread use. The Haskell ball first appeared at the turn of the 20th century, replacing the natural latex gutta percha ball. The new ball's wound rubber core and balata cover yielded greater distance and control for both duffers and pros alike. The scoring at the 1912 Open at New York's Country Club of Buffalo reflected the technology change.
After 36 holes on the first day, McDermott trailed Brady and Alex Smith by two strokes. Although the leaders faded on the second day, Tom McNamara played the last 36 in an unprecedented 6-under 73-69 - 142. However, his middling 74-80 - 154 on the first day proved a handicap he couldn't overcome.
McDermott's solid play in the third and fourth rounds, 74-71 - 154, secured a two-stroke win over McNamara. His 294 total was four short of the Open record, but Buffalo's length - par-74 - made that score seem even better.
The two-time U. S. Open winner was atop American golf. He gladly accepted lucrative endorsements for clubs and balls, played exhibition matches for substantial fees, and invested his money. All seemed right.
After a fifth-place finish in the 1913 British Open, he returned to see that many of his stock-market investments had gone south. Still single at 21 and living with his parents and sisters, he tried to soldier on. He entered an important tournament at a Pennsylvania resort, the Shawnee Open.
The entrants included the vaunted Harry Vardon and fellow Englishman Ted Ray, who had traveled to the United States to play an exhibition tour that season. McDermott shook off his money woes long enough to demolish the field by eight strokes and he was 13 clear of Vardon.
McDermott spoke brashly afterward, according to Glenn. "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." His remarks backfired, and although he later apologized, the resulting criticism deepened his gloom.
After a desultory eighth-place finish in the 1913 U. S. Open won brilliantly by the American amateur Francis Ouimet over Vardon and Ray, McDermott tried again at the Open in Scotland. A missed train and ferry connection forced his withdrawal, and he booked an immediate return to the States. His ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, collided with a grain carrier in the English Channel, forcing McDermott and others in lifeboats. He was quickly rescued.
The rapid sequence of untoward events - money losses, the Shawnee dust-up and the shipwreck - seemed to diminish Johnny's spark.
McDermott fainted in Atlantic City's golf shop in October 1914. Upon examination, he appeared to be mentally ill, but the science of the day yielded little insight into his disease until a 1916 diagnosis of schizophrenia. His parents committed him to a Pennsylvania hospital for the insane that year, and he would remain a patient in hospitals and rest homes the rest of his life.
Johnny's sisters regularly took him to golf tournaments for a chance to get outside and watch the play. He even visited Philadelphia area golf courses to play an occasional nine holes.
McDermott saw his last U. S. Open in 1971 at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. Lee Trevino, another self-taught player from a hardscrabble beginning, won, beating the great Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff on June 21, 1971.
Johnny McDermott, America's first golf hero, died 41 days later on August 1, 1971. Few of today's golf fans know of the man, but McDermott's life, albeit one scarred by his illness, was a remarkable link between Vardon of the 19th century and Nicklaus of the 20th.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.
HERALD SCOTLAND WRITES: Here's to the forgotten man of golf.
Here's to the forgotten man of golf
13 Jun 2011
John McDermott was the real pioneer of American golf, writes Alasdair Reid
There are few more storied figures in American golf than Francis Ouimet, the Brookline caddie who won the 1913 US Open on his home course by beating the British giants Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Ouimet’s image is captured on the United States Golf Association’s logo, his tale was told in the best-selling book, later made into a film, ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’, and he has long been feted for igniting the explosion of interest that made American golf the massive sport it is today.
And yet, the notion that Ouimet struck a blow for America by ending the old colonial hegemony is something of a convenient creation myth for golf in the USA. In actual fact, the supremacy of players from the other side of the Atlantic – British professionals had dominated the US Open from its birth in 1895 – had already been undermined before Ouimet made his breakthrough. And John McDermott, the man who did it, is a rather more intriguing individual.
In later life, Ouimet was showered with a host of invitations to join the most prestigious clubs – he was the first American to captain the R&A – and was memorialised by inductions into various halls of fame, on stamps and statues as well as the USGA logo. By contrast, McDermott’s path took him to the Pennsylvania State Hospital for the Insane and a lowly grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, Philadelphia.
Its inscription is telling. John J McDermott. First American Born Golf Champion. 1911 – 1912.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of McDermott’s US Open win at Chicago Golf Club. The early development of golf in America had been driven by immigrant club professionals, and the first 16 Opens had been won by players who had been born and learned the game in either Scotland or England, so the significance of McDermott’s victory was huge. At the time of his triumph, McDermott was just 19 years and 10 months old; he is still the youngest ever US Open champion.
Born in Philadelphia in 1891, McDermott had shown a prodigious talent from the moment he first picked up a club. At just the age of nine, he was a caddie on his local course; a few years later he dropped out of high school to concentrate on golf. To make ends meet, he worked in club shops at a couple of courses in New Jersey before eventually becoming the club professional at Atlantic City Country Club.
Slightly built but immensely powerful, he announced himself to the wider sport at the 1910 US Open, where he finished second to Carnoustie-born Alex Smith. The result showed McDermott’s potential, but an exchange in its aftermath, reported in the New York Times, revealed an element of his character that would cause him trouble in the future.
“Hard luck, kid,” said Smith, according to the report.
“I’ll get you next year, you big tramp,” McDermott is said to have replied.
And he did. In Chicago, McDermott opened what was then a two-day tournament with an 81 but then shot three rounds in the 70s to earn a play-off – then and now a full 18 holes – against George Simpson and Mike Brady. His 80 was good enough to see him home.
Herbert Warren Wind, the greatest historian of American golf, records that McDermott had almost limitless self-belief. “McDermott feared no man,” wrote Wind. “He was willing to wager on his ability to outplay any golfer in the world – Vardon not excepted – any time, any place and for any amount of money.”
The following year McDermott made a successful defence of his first US Open title at Buffalo Country Club, where the awestruck gallery included a young Walter Hagen. His value soared and he grew rich on the proceeds of exhibition matches. “I have never seen a man who, when called upon to hit a ball a given number of yards, can do so with such damned irritating consistency,” confessed Ray.
When Vardon and Ray made their famous US tour in 1913, building up to Brookline, they delighted the crowds everywhere they went, but when they came up against McDermott in Delaware’s Shawnee Open they lost to the American by 13 and 14 strokes respectively.
The result should have grabbed the headlines. Again, though, it was McDermott’s arrogant reaction that made news. “We hope our foreign visitors had a good time,” McDermott was reported as saying. “But we don’t think they did and we’re sure they won’t win the National Open.”
McDermott would subsequently claim that he had spoken tongue in cheek. However, the USGA took a dimmer view and considered banning him from the 1913 US Open on grounds of extreme discourtesy. They relented, and McDermott finished a creditable eighth behind Ouimet at Brookline, but he was traumatised by the whole affair and friends feared for his health.
He had other worries in his life. He had earned a huge amount of money, but had invested almost all of it unwisely. He then endured a calamitous trip to Britain to play in the 1914 Open Championship at Prestwick, but he missed a ferry and a train and arrived too late for qualifying. Things went from bad to worse on the return trip when he set off from Southampton on the steamer Kaiser Wilhelm II. The ship collided with a grain carrier and he endured several hours in a lifeboat before being rescued.
Already mentally fragile, the accident seemed to tip McDermott over the edge. He finally returned home and entered the US Open – the championships were played in a different order to now – but he was a changed man. “The indomitable, some would say abrasive, self-confidence that had marked his demeanour was nowhere in evidence,” ran one report. In October that year, he collapsed in the Atlantic City pro shop. He would never play competitive golf seriously again.
McDermott was taken home by his parents. He spent time in a mental hospital in Massachusetts and another in Philadelphia. Eventually, in 1916, when he was still just 24-years-old, his mother committed him to the State Hospital, promising to pay $1.75 per week for, in the words of the official documentation, “support of said lunatic, in said Hospital, until further notice.”
By strange coincidence, three days after McDermott was committed to hospital, the United States Professional Golfers Association was formed at a meeting in Minneapolis. A note in their first minutes reads: ‘A subscription is taken up for J McDermott who was reported as permanently sick’. His fellow players staged a number of events and exhibitions over the next few years to help pay for his care.
McDermott, diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia, was to spend the rest of his life in institutions. He was lucky in the sense that the Pennsylvania hospital was a reasonably enlightened place. Even so, medical reports variously labelled him as ‘paranoid, delusional, catatonic and incoherent’. He would spend much of his time scribbling in notebooks, simply writing his parents’ names.
Towards the end of his life, McDermott recovered sufficiently to spend more time outside the hospital. His sisters arranged for him to play rounds of golf, but his partners were effectively chaperoning him around the course. “He was an old man, kind of scrawny looking,” said one. “He’d carry conversations with me but abruptly fade out.”
He would also be taken to watch tournaments in the Philadelphia area. At one, Arnold Palmer recognised the small man behind the ropes and came over to say hello. “How are you, John?” Palmer asked. McDermott replied that he was having problems with his putting. Palmer smiled and replied: “We all need to practice our putting, don’t we?”
McDermott died of heart failure on August 1st, 1971, 11 days before his 80th birthday. Around 15 years after his death, his 1911 US Open winner’s medal was found in the desk of his friend and benefactor Leo Fraser. It was valued at more than $40,000, but Fraser’s family donated it to the USGA. It is now kept in the USGA museum in New Jersey.
MYSTERY SHROUDS US OPEN CHAMP FROM 100 YEARS AGO
By EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Johnny McDermott arrived at the golf course without fanfare — virtually unnoticed, to be more precise — dropped off by his sister near the front door.
The assistant golf pro at the Overbrook Golf Club was scheduled to meet McDermott at the door, take him to the course and play nine holes, the way they did every Saturday and Sunday when the weather was good.
"It was him and me and one caddie and that was it," said the golf pro, Jerry Pisano, who worked at Overbrook, one of the very first country clubs on this side of the Atlantic, situated near the Main Line just outside Philadelphia. "No real conversation to speak of, except maybe a little bit about golf. I was always interested in trying to figure out his past, what happened to him over in Europe, but I never could get any definitive answers."
Very few could. But before Arnie had an army or Nicklaus had won any of his 18 majors or Tiger turned golf into front-page news, Johnny McDermott set the standard for American golf.
At 19, the diminutive kid from West Philly became the first American to win the U.S. Open in a sport dominated by the British. This year marks the 100th anniversary of McDermott's groundbreaking win. But even today, a century later, McDermott's sudden rise and equally quick fall remain a mystery to most.
Within five years of his crowning moment, he was all but gone from professional golf, assigned to a home for mentally ill patients, driven crazy — legend has it — by a series of mishaps that cut short a career that could have been for the ages.
More than four decades after McDermott's decline, Pisano spent the better part of a year playing on weekends with the two-time champion (he also won in 1912), who remains the youngest person to win the U.S. Open. They played hour after hour of golf without really saying a word.
"It was two different worlds," Pisano said. "He knew his golf. He could talk golf to you — 'I cut that one a little, turned that one over.' Talking about anything other than that, practically, he was not able to do that. It was 'Yes,' 'No,' and that was about it."
McDermott used old clubs with hickory shafts, a wood-shafted Bobby Jones putter and a double-overlap grip in which only eight fingers touched the club.
He was 5-foot-8, weighed maybe 130 pounds but could swing as hard and hit the ball as far as any of them back in his day. He had what was described as a "wristy" swing, one that would be frowned upon in this day and age, where the players and their swings all seem to come out of a factory. But in an era well before golf coaches and swing gurus and video, McDermott learned his game in the dirt on the practice fields near his home in Philly.
Had the game — and the hype — been what it is now, McDermott might have been trumpeted as the leader of "The Next Generation of American Golf." Instead, he was part of America's first generation, alongside Walter Hagen and Francis Ouimet, the 1913 U.S. Open winner whose victory is widely credited for giving golf its popular start in the United States.
Hagen and Ouimet went on to long, successful careers.
McDermott's was all but over by 1916.
It started unraveling three years before. After crushing the greats of the sport — Brits Alex Smith, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — at a U.S. Open tuneup tournament in Shawnee, Pa., 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."
It was a show of brashness and bravado that fit McDermott's personality, but he claimed his words had been taken out of context, that he had only been joking. The USGA, shocked by the behavior, considered barring McDermott from the U.S. Open but let him play. But the damage had been done. According to a New York Times account, McDermott "worried greatly over the affair and has almost broken down under the strain."
Meantime, McDermott's financial picture had grown worse, as the investments he made with his earlier U.S. Open winnings sank. In 1914, hoping to climb back atop the golf world, he headed across the Atlantic for the British Open, but missed the ferry and train he needed to catch to get to qualifying.
His return home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II was disrupted early when a grain carrier hit the ship in the English Channel. The ship made it back to land in Britain, but not before McDermott and a number of other passengers were sheltered in lifeboats.
"Physically, McDermott was OK, but his mind was fragile," Bill Fields wrote in a stirring account of McDermott's life in Golf World magazine.
"Everything had hit within a year," McDermott's sister, Gertrude, is quoted as saying in the magazine. "First the stock failure, then the awful results of the Shawnee tournament, then the Open and finally that wreck."
McDermott played in the 1914 U.S. Open but finished ninth. "The indomitable — some would say abrasive — self-confidence that had always marked his demeanor was nowhere in evidence," wrote James Finegan in 'A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia.'
That turned out to be McDermott's final major. Later that year, his parents checked him into a mental hospital for the first time. In June 1916, his mother committed him to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa., where, according to Golf World, she was ordered to pay $1.75 a week "for support of said lunatic in said Hospital, until further notice."
McDermott dabbled in golf for the rest of his life — on a six-hole course built on the grounds of the hospital, in a few more professional tournaments and on outings such as the ones he made to Overbrook during the summers of 1956 and '57.
Pisano was a pretty good pro himself and a student of the game. He played in four U.S. Opens, beginning in 1962, when Jack Nicklaus won his first major, beating Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont.
Pisano said the scene of McDermott walking through the door at Overbrook more than 40 years after his U.S. Open win wouldn't hold a candle to watching Palmer or Nicklaus walk into any golf club today.
"No, because, basically, I don't think too many people knew he was there," Pisano said. "It was always in the afternoon. Nine holes. Whatever notoriety he had was strictly of a local nature. When he came to the course, I'm not sure anybody recognized him. I knew him. But I'm a whole different story. Golf was my business. I don't think there was any hoopla about it."
McDermott died in 1971, again virtually unnoticed. The inscription on his simple gravestone, an easy one to miss at the expansive Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pa., reads: "First American Born Golf Champion 1911 - 1912."
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
John McDermott – America’s Forgotten Hero – By Bill Kelly
British and Scottish professionals won the first sixteen US Open national golf championships from the time it first began in 1895 until 1911, when a young, spunky teenager from Philadelphia finally became the first native born American champion, and at 19 years old, still the youngest to have ever won the US Open.
McDermott first came to the public’s attention at the US Open at the Philadelphia Cricket Club the year before, when he tied Macdonald and Alex Smith and lost in a three way playoff.
The former Aronimink Golf Club caddy took his first job as the Merchantville (NJ) Golf Club pro and was then hired as the professional at the prestigious Atlantic City Country Club. At Atlantic City McDermott rented a room in a small cottage across the street (that is still there), and took the trolley to Atlantic City every morning to attend mass, after which he practiced and gave lessons. They say McDermott would spread out newspaper pages over an area as a target, and then narrow it down until he could hit a small area at will.
He was confident of victory in the 1911 Open at the Chicago Golf Club, and he won again in 1912 in Buffalo, New York, defending his title with back-to-back victories, the sign of a true champion.
McDermott also went to Europe to play, becoming the first American to break into the top ranks at the British Open. McDermott was treated with more dignity than Walter Travis, who went before him, and had his Schenectady (center shafted) putter banned by the British. Travis refused to defend his title and there was a developing animosity between the American and British golfers, which was intensified by McDermott at Shawnee in 1913.
McDermott really made his mark at the tournament at Shawnee a few weeks before the 1913 US Open when he played against Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers to ever play the game. They routinely won the US Open whenever they came over, but didn’t play in the two Opens won by McDermott, so there was the nagging question as to whether McDermott could actually beat the best. That question was answered at Shawnee, when McDermott won the tournament outright, and defeated Vardon and Ray by eight strokes.
It wasn’t just the way McDermott won, or by how much, but afterwards, in the locker room full of reporters, when McDermott made a speech in which he promised that the US Open trophy would not be taken back across the pond. McDermott was quoted extensively in the British press, and that speech took golf off the sports pages and put it on the front pages of every major newspaper in America and the British Empire.
Although McDermott was criticized, claimed he was misquoted and apologized, the media frenzy following McDermott’s nationalistic speech created much anticipation for the 1913 US Open at the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts. When McDermott fell behind, it was left to Francis Ouimet, an equally young 20 year old caddy and dedicated amateur, to keep McDermott’s promise. The tournament ended in a three way tie between Ouimet and the two greatest golfers ever, and McDermott advised Ouimet to, “Pay no attention to Vardon and Ray and play your own game,” which Ouimet did in what was later called “The Greatest Game.”
A photo of Ouimet getting ready to put in his final shop, with Vardon, Ray, McDermott and a huge crowd looking on, hung next to the Atlantic City CC locker room door for decades.
McDermott later went back to Europe, where he missed a train and his tee shot, and didn’t play in the tournament. Returning home by steamship, McDermott was in the barber’s chair when his ship rammed by another ship and sunk, and he survived in a lifeboat. When he finally got home, he learned that his stocks had tanked and he was broke. One morning he was found unconscious in the Atlantic City Country Club pro shop, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown, and spent the rest of his life living either with his sister in Philadelphia or local institutions. He did play on occasion however, as he did with Tim DeBaufre at Valley Forge and elsewhere, until his clubs were stolen from his sister’s car.
One club survived however. While playing with a stranger, he borrowed a club from his playing companion, and liked it, and he was allowed to keep it. In return, he gave up an old wooden mashie, saying to his incredulous playing partner, “that club helped me win two US Open championships.”
When the 1971 US Open was held in Philadelphia at the Merion Country Club, McDermott’s sister left him alone in the clubhouse where a young assistant pro, Bill Pappa, thought he was in the way and ordered him out of the pro shop. While Pappa, who now teaches golf at Greate Bay in Somers Point, was notified that the old man he had just kicked out of the pro shop was a two-time winner of the US Open. Arnold Palmer recognized him however, put his arm around McDermott and asked him how he was.
As it was later reported, “In 1971, Arnold Palmer, while playing the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, noticed a shambling old man being ejected from the lobby. Palmer recognized him as John McDermott who, in 1911, had been the first American to win the U.S. Open. Tossing out such a man wouldn’t do, decided Palmer, who shooed away club employees and escorted McDermott back inside. “They talked golfer to golfer, champion to champion,” wrote golf historian John Coyne, “and Palmer then arranged for McDermott to stay at the tournament as his special guest.”
Two months later McDermott died in his sleep at his sister’s home in Philadelphia.
John McDermott was the first American US Open Champion and at 19, remains the youngest to have ever won the Open trophy.