Monday, June 18, 2012

Re: "The Curious Case of John McDermott" Golf Magazine - June 2012


Photo Caption: John McDermott with Open Trophy (USGA) 

The Curious Case of JOHN McDERMOTT

By John Garrity

A century before 22-year-old Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open, 19-year-old John McDermott did the same. McDermott defended his title the following year and then did something even more remarkable: He checked into a psychiatric ward and all but vanished from the game.

DAMNED YANKEE Before his mental illness, McDermott became the first American to win the U.S. Open.

U.S. OPEN At the Majors


McDermott (above) circa 1911, the year he won his first U.S. Open, at 19.

Above: His champion’s medal and cleek from the ’11 Open.

Photo Credit: Birth of the Birdie

OLD GUARD Forgotten by fans, McDermott (center) was highly regarded by such former touring pros as Leo Fraser (left) and Harry Cooper

EVERY GOLF MOVIE SEEMS TO HAVE A “you-got-to-be-kidding-me” moment that spoils it for real golfers. In Tin Cup it’s the scene where driving-range pro Roy McAvoy straps on so many swing aids that he looks like a one-man band. In Bagger Vance it’s the scene where amateur golfer Rannulph Junuh wanders into the woods for a prolonged chitchat with his girlfriend while Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and thousands of spectators wait patiently in the fairway, staring at the clouds.

The Greatest Game Ever Played has such a scene. It’s the moment in the final round of the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline where the camera jumps to an unspecified fairway, where two-time defending champion John J. McDermott addresses the ball. A tall, intense man with a sandy mustache and an unruly shock of blond hair, McDermottt nearly snaps his suspenders when he swings, but his face registers shock and dismay as the ball peals off in a 90-degree slice and disappears into dense foliage. Like a villain skewered in Hollywood sword fight, McDermott drops his club behind him and freezes for a moment – legs buckling, arms hanging limp – before finally sagging to the ground, a broken man.

That’s the point in the film where I punched the pause button. “Two thumbs down!” I said dismissively. “I mean, who writes this stuff?”

So you can imagine my chagrin when I learned recently that the movie’s golfer-goes-mad scene was genuine.

Genuine, I say, as distinct from accurate. John McDermott did not, in fact, suffer a mental breakdown on the eve of amateur Francis Ouimet’s historic playoff victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Playing for a large and supportive gallery, the 22-year old McDermott completed his rain-plagued round without incident and finished at 308, good for 8th place and a $50 check. Furthermore, he looked nothing like Michael Weaver, the actor who played him in the 2005 movie. The real McDermott was short, slight, and clean-shaven, with soft, brown hair combed across a broad forehead.

But you have to grant filmmakers their creative license. McDermott, an abrasive and combative man notorious for his club-throwing rages, actually had his nervous breakdown some 13 months later in his pro shop at the Atlantic City Country Club, and it wasn’t until the summer of 1916 that he was committed to the Pennsylvania State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa., where he would reside for the better part of 55 years. If anything, the screenplay’s portrayal of McDermott shows restraint, given that America’s preeminent pro golfer of the era suffered financial ruin and survived a shipwreck in the English Channel within a year of Ouimet’s triumph.

What’s astonishing is the historic vanishing act performed by McDermott, who still holds the record for youngest player to win a U.S. Open (19 years, 10 months, 12 days). The son of a West Philadelphia mailman, he caddied at Aronimink Golf Club and learned to play on a sandlot course in an adjoining apple orchard. Dropping out of high school in defiance of his father – shades of Ouimet! – McDermott apprenticed with Aronimink pro Walter Reynolds and worked at clubs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey while honing his game. A prodigy, he was only 18 when he won the Philadelphia Open by a stroke over four-time U.S. Open champion Willie Anderson, a transplanted Scott. A few weeks later, McDermott narrowly lost the 1910 U.S. Open to Carnoustie-born Alex Smith in a three-man, 18 hole playoff, making a strong impression with his accurate iron play and an even stronger impression with his parting gibe at Smith: “I’ll get you next year, you big lout!”

Did I mention that McDermott was famously rude and bigoted? Mark Frost, who wrote both the screenplay for The Greatest Game and the bestseller upon which it was based, characterized him as “a rough, half-crazed professional whom people crossed the street to avoid.” McDermott’s general dislike of foreigners came to a boil when he encountered British accents – which was pretty much every day, since English and Scottish pros held most of the prestigious club jobs and ruled the tournament circuit, winning the first 16 U.S. Opens. In the movie, a smiling McDermott stands protectively by the Open trophy while delivering a welcoming speech to Vardon and Ray, whom he calls “the great English champions.”


McDERMOTT (easily)

As the only born American to ever win this cup, I’d like to say welcome. We hope you boys have a nice time here in Boston (expression hardens). But personally, I don’t think you will. I don’t care if you whipped every single one of us the last six weeks, I’m sick and tired of people sayin’ all you have to do to win is show up! (pointing a finger at Vardon). This time you’re not taking our damn cup back!

I’m no film critic, but I didn’t buy that Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation any more than I believed the falling-to-the-turf scene. Not, that is, until I burrowed into century-old newspapers and read contemporaneous accounts of McDermott’s ugly outburst. The movie fibs by placing the incident at Brookline-it actually occurred a couple of weeks earlier at the Shawnee-on-Delaware Open, where the boastful Yank had won by a mile, beating Vardon by 13 strokes and Ray by 14 – but the dialogue and the stage directions ring true. History records that USGA President Robert Watson, after publicly apologizing for McDermott’s “extreme discourtesy,” came close to banning the troubled pro from the Brookline Open.

Truth is, the Philadelphian’s game could be as manic as his manners. McDermott won the 1911 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club despite hitting his first two tee shots off the playoff out of bounds. Defending his title in 1912, he won by two at the Country Club of Buffalo, but a few months later, in hated Scotland, he couldn’t break 90 at Muirfield and failed to even qualify for the Open Championship. (He did far better in 1913, his fifth-place at Hoylake being, at the time, the best-ever finish by an American.) His swagger, however, never flagged. “McDermott expected to win every tournament he entered,” golf historian Herbert Warren Wind wrote some four decades later. “For two or three seasons, while his never held high, the 130-pound bantam-cock was almost as good as he thought he was.”

Nobody really knew, of course, what was coursing through the youngster’s troubled mind, McDermott cashed in his Open wins with endorsements, exhibitions and $1,000 challenge matches, but he squandered his newfound riches in a plummeting stock market. Hoping to recoup at the 1914 British Open, he somehow missed his ferry and train connections to Prestwick, Scotland, arriving too late to qualify. It’s fair to say he was already reeling from those setbacks when he boarded the superliner Kaiser Wilhelm II for the voyage home. McDermott was in the ship’s barbershop when a grain carrier, the Incemore, rammed the fogbound liner off the Isle of Wight.


Paniky passengers fight over access to a starboard lifeboat as crewmen crank the winches. Evacuation sirens blare. McDermott, expressionless, leans heavily against a shuddering bulkhead. He slides slowly to the deck, oblivious to the surrounding chaos and the seawater soaking his trousers.

STEWARD (urgently)

I’ll need you to get up, sire. We’ve been ordered to the boats.
(shaking McDermott’s shoulder) Sir? Sir?

Okay, that’s from my own, unfinished screenplay, based loosely on James Cameron’s Titantic. In reality, neither ship sank, nobody died, and McDermott made it safely onto another liner. His family, though, would partially blame the accident for his deteriorating state of mind.

McDermott had one more Open in him, and he played respectably, finishing in a ninth-place tie at Midlothian Country Club, outside Chicago. Shortly thereafter, he experienced the psychotic episode in Atlantic City, which marked his descent into paranoid schizophrenia and institutional care. “He made no contact with staff or patients,” James Finegan writes in A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia. “Indeed, he rarely spoke He spent endless hours scribbling unintelligibly in notebooks, claiming he was writing his mother’s and father’s names.”

But McDermott never quit the game. He played on the asylum’s six-hole course, and he ventured out for two cracks at real competition, finishing last in the 1925 Philadelphia Open and next-to-last in that year’s Shawnee tournament, 59 strokes behind Willie MacFarlaine. For decades thereafter, his sisters Gertrude and Alice signed him out of the asylum for day trips that included rounds of golf or tournament spectating.

“You must play a round with him to get your fill of amazement,” said the Philadelphia club pro Elwood Poore. “He’s almost a cinch to be using the wrong club, but he’s also a cinch for the low 80s. He plays by the rules as he knew them, still drops a ball over his shoulder after an out of bounds shot off the tea.” Poore added, “He hardly mentions the old days except when something happens to light up a dim picture.” A sudden onslaught of rain, for example, reminded McDermott of a round a Muirfield. “Cold and raw,” he told Poore, “and I could not get any feeling of the club.”

So no, McDermott didn’t quit the game. But neither did the game quit him. In 1924, golfers in New York and New Jersey raised funds for his treatment, with donations from Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, and singer Al Jolson. Years later, Hagen played a round with McDermott on the hospital course, at the end of which the still-young patient said, “Tell the boys I’m getting along just fine.”

With the passage of time – picture calendar pages turning – McDermott slipped into that gray zone between “Whatever happened to?” and “I thought he died years ago.” He was deeply moved when the PGA of America, in 1940, selected him as one of its 12 original Hall of Fame inductees. He was happy, too, when the Atlantic City Country Club named a room for him and put one of his championship medals on display. But it had to hurt when he was snubbed by the “official” Golf Hall of Fame (since morphed into the World Golf Hall of Fame). And there’s the story of the confused old man kicked out of the pro shop at a certain PGA championship because the staff didn’t recognize him as a two-time U.S. Open champion.

Well, that’s one version of the story. Another, widely circulated, takes place at Philadelphia’s fabled Merion Golf Club during the 1971 U.S. Open.


Arnold Palmer, on his way to the locker room, notices a shambling old man being ejected from the clubhouse lobby. Recognizing the old man, the 1960 U.S. Open champions intervenes.

But he’s just an old bum that’s been hangin’ around.

PALMER (in a kingly manner)
You’re wrong. This gentleman is the oldest living U.S. Open champion, and he’s my special guest.

Palmer has confirmed the spirit, if not the letter, of the story. Accounts agree that McDermott, despite his mental state, beat bogey on Philadelphia-area courses up to his death of heart failure, in 1971, at the age of 79. His gravestone reads: FIRST AMERICAN-BORN GOLF CHAMPION 1911-1912.

I knew none of this when I first viewed The Greatest Game. So I practically howled at the scene where McDermott sits down in the fairway. Are you kidding? The spectators don’t come to his aid! They avert their eyes and drift away, embarrassed. And McDermott’s caddie stands rigidly by the bag, seemingly blind to his employer’s breakdown.

“That’s not believable,” I grumbled. “A champion golfer doesn’t suddenly become invisible.”

Unless – and this is what I’ve come to believe – he’s the champion America wanted to forget.


Bill Kelly's Response to this article:

To the Editor, Golf Magazine.

I was quite surprised to read John Garitty’s “The Curious Case of John McDermott” in the June 2012 issue of Golf Magazine and learn that John McDermott was a “famously rude, combative, abrasive, embarrassing, insane bigot, best left forgotten.”

At the Atlantic City Country Club John McDermott still has the reputation for being a young, brash and determined gentleman who didn’t throw his clubs, drink or curse and attended mass every day before going to work, where he was highly regarded as the golf professional. I thought I had researched the life of McDermott thoroughly while writing the “Birth of the Birdie” history of the club, but I must have somehow missed the “bigot” and parts “best left forgotten.”

McDermott had a typical Irish-American view of the British and Scot pros who dominated the game in America and won the US national championship for its first 16 consecutive years until he came along. Maybe McDermott was a bit rude in calling a  Alex Smith a “a big lout” after losing the 1910 Open in a playoff, but he was only 18 years old at the time, and he did make good on his promise to beat Smith the next time they met.

McDermott’s “bigoted” view of the British of that era may have been justified, as it was supported by Walter Travis, who won the US Amateur at the Atlantic City Country Club before he won the British Amateur, but was so rudely treated by the British he refused to return to defend his title, especially after his center-shafted putter was retroactively banned by the Royal and Ancient Order of what he considered Snobs.

Walter Hagen, McDermott’s friend and colleague, confirmed their view when he took exception to the British rule that golf pros were not permitted in the clubhouse dining room, and refused to play until the rules were changed. And John B. Kelly, another ACCC member and Olympic rowing champion, was banned from participating in the Henley regatta because he was a bricklayer and not a considered a gentleman.

It wasn’t McDermott who had bad manners and had to be taught a lesson, it was the British and UK professionals who thought they could win the US Open trophy just by showing up, and it was McDermott – the young, brash and determined teenager who taught them a lesson. He did it again at Shawnee in 1913, shortly before the U.S. Open at Brookline, when he handily won the preliminary tournament by eight strokes.

That’s when McDermott gave his famous speech, promising to keep the US Open trophy in America, which generated international interest in the game and took golf off the sports pages and put it on the front pages of every newspaper in the United States and the British Empire. That speech set the stage for the showdown at Brookline, which was “the Greatest Game” not because a local amateur won it, but because McDermott made it so. The international spirit inflamed by McDermott’s “combative” style can still be felt today during Walker, Ryder and Curtis Cup tournaments, and other “friendly competitions between nations,” especially between the USA and UK.

I hope that Golf Magazine will correct their crude mischaracterization of John McDermott, and the true story is someday told of the great American teenage champion who sparked and inspired today’s international competitions.  

William E. Kelly, Jr.                                                                                                                 
20 Columbine Ave.
Browns Mills, New Jersey 08015

1 comment:

misiek said...

One of better articles I've read lately. Great history of interesting person and the greatest game!

Our golf course in Slovakia