Sunday, May 8, 2011

John McDermott's US Open Medal


John McDermott's US Open Medal and signature club
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The first American golf star: the tragic tale of John J. McDermott

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.


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.

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