Wednesday, July 18, 2012

John McDermott to be Inducted into Philly Sports Hall of Fame

John McDermott to be Inducted into Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame –
By William Kelly

John McDermott will be inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame 100 years after he won his second U.S. Open golf championship, 101 years after he became the first native born American and at 19 years old, still the youngest still to have ever won the national championship.

McDermott’s nomination will be announced at a Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame press conference Thursday (July 19, 2012) at the Sheraton Society Hill. Also nominated and expected to be inducted into the Class IX during official ceremonies in November – are Philadelphia 76er coach Doug Collins and former player Wali Jones, former Flyer Eric Lindros, Eagle quarterback Tommy Thompson and Phillie all-star right fielder Johnny Callison and others.

For Philadelphia sports fans, McDermott is a forgotten hero who, one hundred years ago, was the toast of the town and the entire nation, being the first native-born American to win the US Open national golf championship. After defending his title he fell into obscurity, having suffered a nervous breakdown that left him a quiet recluse.

Unless a relative can be located, McDermott’s honor will be recognized and accepted by James Fraser, the President of the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association, owner of the Mays Landing Country Club and former owner of the Atlantic City Country Club where McDermott was the golf professional from 1911-1914.

Born in Philadelphia, the son of a West Philadelphia mailman, McDermott dropped out of school to work as a caddy at the Old Arnomick Golf Club. When he was 18 years old he tied Alex and Mac Smith for the 1910 Open (held at Merion?), then lost in a playoff. When the senior Scotsman said something at the end of the match, the brash teenager replied, “I’ll beat you next time you big lout,” exhibiting a spunky determination that would allow him to keep his word.

Although disappointed his son had dropped out of school, McDermott’s father was surprised to read about his son’s golf game in the newspapers, and as a top finish in the Open got McDermott the job as the head professional at the Merchantville (NJ) Golf Club. That didn’t last long however, as he was shortly hired away by the more affluent Atlantic City Country Club, where he rented a room in a house across the street and took the trolley to Atlantic City every morning to attend mass.

McDermott didn’t drink alcohol, smoke or have any apparent vices, other than golf, and while he fulfilled his normal pro shop duties of making and repairing clubs and giving lessons, he spent most of his time practicing. One local account has him placing a patch of newspapers on the side of a slope and using it as a target, reducing its size until he could hit a small patch every time.

Although no American had ever won the national open championship since it was inaugurated over a dozen years ago, McDermott was confident when he left the pro shop to take the train to Chicago in 1911, telling his assistant, “You’re carrying the clubs of the next US Open champion.”

And as with his threat to Smith, McDermott made good on his prediction, as he won in a playoff with two others. Not only was he the first American to win the championship, at 19 years of age he was and remains the youngest to ever win the US Open golf championship.

And as Walter Hagan said was the sign of a true champion, McDermott did won the Open twice, back to back, winning again in Buffalo, New York, a tournament that inspired Hagen to forego the drudges of an assistant golf pro and strictly play tournament golf. Last year, when young Irishman Rory McElroy won the US Open by record scores, they said he could be the greatest ever, just as they said the same about McDermott, but then McElroy couldn’t do what McDermott did, and defend the title, not even making the cut at this year’s Open.

It was the year after McDermott had defended his title, in 1913, that would be pivotal in the game of golf, as many of the great European pros -  most notably Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Wilfred Reid, who did not participate in the previous two Opens, would be touring America and it was expected they would take the Open trophy home with them as they had done on previous occasions.

A week before the 1913 Open there was a tournament at Shawnee-on-Delaware, where most of the Open field were to play a celebrated game, won solidly by McDermott by eight strokes. The game was significant because of the exuberant locker room speech McDermott gave following his victory, promising once again that the Europeans wouldn’t take the American national Open trophy back across the pond. Reporters who were there sensationalized the speech, and implied that McDermott was a rude braggart, and he apologized, but the publicity had given the Open unprecedented attention from both sides of the Atlantic.

While the 1913 US Open a the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts would become known as “the Greatest Game,” it was McDermott’s victory at Shawnee the week before that set up the Open as the most important tournament in golf history, and took golf off the sports page and put the game on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Although McDermott didn’t win that open, he did advise young amateur Francis Oiument, a former Brookline caddy, on how to defeat Vardon and Ray and keeping McDermott’s promise of keeping the Open trophy in America.

McDermott did play in the British Open, finishing fifth, the highest for an American up to that time, but when he returned for the 1912 Open, he missed a train and his t-time and didn’t get to play. It was the beginning of a series of events that would have an unknown affect on him, as the steamship he took home collided with another ship and sunk, with McDermott surviving in a lifeboat. When he did finally get home, he learned that his stock portfolio had tanked, and he was broke.

Then one morning McDermott, after receiving a notice from Harry Vardon and Ted Ray that they were canceling their planned exhibition together, McDermott was found unconscious on floor of the Atlantic City pro shop, apparently of a nervous breakdown, as the doctors were unable to properly diagnose the illness. Although sent to the Norristown Hospital, his two sisters found it hard to maintain the $1.50 a day costs, and he was often sent home to live with them.

When a group of professional golfers formed the Professional Golfers Association (PGA), one of the first issues they addressed was to begin a fund to help pay for the care of McDermott. Although he found it hard to communicate, McDermott still enjoyed playing golf, and they created a small, six-hole course around the grounds of Norristown hospital, where Walter Hagen and others visited him. Occasionally McDermott’s sisters would drop him off at Valley Forge or another local course where the pro would see that he played a round of golf.

After Leo Fraser purchased the Atlantic City Country Club in 1945, he arranged for McDermott to visit, play some golf and enjoy the salt air amid old, familiar surroundings.

A photo of McDermott with Leo Fraser and “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, standing behind the Atlantic City Country Club clubhouse, is included in the book Birth of the Birdie (1998), and is published in a special feature story about McDermott in Golf Magazine (June, 2012), which unfairly describes him as a “bigot best left forgotten.”

McDermott was a special guest at the 1972 US Open Championship at Merion, but when his sister left him alone in the pro shop, a young assistant pro ordered the disheveled old man out of the shop because he was in the way. But Arnold Palmer recognized him, put his arm around the old man and asked him how his game was coming along. McDermott reportedly said that his long game was okay but his putting was off, and Palmer they agreed that all it took was practice.

A few weeks later, McDermott was found dead in his sleep at the Yeaden, Pennsylvania home of his sister, and was quietly buried without ceremony. His grave simply notes: US Open winner 1911-1912.

Neither of his sisters were married or had any children, and in appreciation of his care for McDermott, they gave Leo Fraser one of McDermott’s two US Open gold medals. The whereabouts of the other medal is unknown. After Leo Fraser died in 1986, the Fraser family donated the medal to the USGA museum in New Jersey, where it is on permanent display.

James Fraser also has a series of photos of McDermott that were part of an original motion picture process that’s yet to be identified, and will be part of an exhibit of photos and other McDermott mementos that will placed on display at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia in November when McDermott is inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

Also nominated are stadium public address announcer Dan Baker, basketball player and coach Debbie Black, Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Eddie Plank, baseball player Gertrude Dunn, Harold Johnson, Orace Ashenfelter, footballers Joe Klecko and Maxi Baughan and 12-time all-star catcher Mike Piazza. The Arthur Ash Youth Tennis and Education Foundation will also be honored.

William Kelly is the author of “Birth of the Birdie,” the first 100 years of golf at the Atlantic City Country Club. He can be reached at or (609) 425-6297.

No comments: