Sunday, June 5, 2011

John McDermott - America's Forgotten Hero 1911

John McDermott with 1911 US Open Trophy

This article appears in the June 2011 Issue of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Journal

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 shot, with Vardon, Ray, McDermott and a huge crowd looking on, hung on the wall 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 was 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 others, 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.”

Besides his sisters, Gertrude and Alice, Atlantic City Country Club owner Leo Fraser also made sure McDermott was taken care of in hislater years. Fraser invited him to visit the club and named the McDermott Room after him. In return McDermott’s sisters gave Fraser one of his US Open championship medals, valued at $40,000, which the Fraser family donated to the USGA, and is now on display at the USGA museum in Far Hills, NJ.

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 born US Open Champion in 1911 and at 19, remains the youngest to have ever won the U.S. Open.

[You can contact Bill Kelly at]

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