Friday, October 26, 2012


Johnny McDermott Video
Narrated by Jack Whitaker

On November 8th Johnny McDermott is being inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. McDermott, a native of Philadelphia came within one stroke of winning three straight U.S. Opens. He lost the 1910 tournament in a three-way playoff and then won the next two in 1911 and 1912. He was the first American born to win the U.S. Open and is still at age 19 the youngest. We are excited to announce that a video depicting McDermott’s career is now on our website— This video, a TelRa production, was narrated by Jack Whitaker.
Pete Trenham

Philadelphia’s own Johnny McDermott is featured in this video tribute narrated by long time sportscaster, Jack Whitaker.  Born in 1891, McDermott learned to play golf as a caddy at the old Aronimink Golf Club in West Philadelphia.  In 1910 he lost a three- way playoff for the U.S. Open at the Philadelphia Cricket Club but the next year he was victorious in Chicago, becoming the first American born golfer to win the U.S. Open.  In 1912 he successfully defended his title in Buffalo.  100 years after winning two U.S. Opens back-to-back, McDermott is being recognized in his hometown with his induction into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. 

New Addition to

Today John McDermott is America’s forgotten hero, most recently described in a national golf magazine as an ‘abrasive, combative, embarrassing, insane bigot best left forgotten.’

That’s not the John McDermott who is remembered at the Atlantic City Country Club, where he was the golf professional in 1911 when he was the first native born American and at 19 years old, the youngest to win the us open, - and he won it twice, back-to-back, defending his title, what Walter Hagen said was the mark of a true champion.

 At ACCC McDermott was quiet, proud and determined. He didn’t drink, smoke or curse and dutifully attended mass every morning before beginning work.

The John McDermott who returned in his later years was quiet, shy and reserved, yet you could see it in his eyes, the broken vision of what might have been. Maybe he was arrogant to his foreign opponents and obsessive about practice, but what one man says is abrasive, obsessive, rude, combative and bigoted others recognize as young, arrogant, competitive and proud. Maybe that’s what it takes to be the first American champion, to successfully defend your title, and to be the youngest to win the US Open championship.

Young, arrogant and competitive were all attributes attributed to America and Americans as nation at that time – the turn of the 19th century, when John McDermott was born in West Philadelphia to an Irish American family, the son of mailman. Like Leo Fraser and others who discovered the game of golf at an early age, McDermott knew his calling and dropped out of school to become a golf professional. 

Beginning at the old Aronomick club, McDermott first distinguished himself by winning the Philadelphia Open, and then tying the Smith brothers from Scotland in the 1910 US Open, losing in the playoff to Alex, who tried to console the youngster saying, ‘better luck next time,’ to which the eighteen year old McDermott responded, ‘‘I’ll beat you the next time you big lout.’’

While that might be considered rude to some, McDermott did beat Smith the next time they played, and he beat everyone else he played over the next two years, during which time he won two Philadelphia Opens, two US Opens and every other tournament he entered. He also had a standing challenge to play anyone for any amount of money, a challenge few took up, as McDermott was clearly recognized as on the top of his game and one of the best golfer in the world at that time. And at 20 years old, it was said that if he lived up to his potential he could be the best ever.

Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, from the British Isle of Jersey, were the best golfers in the world, and  among the best of all time, but they didn’t participate in the two US Opens McDermott won, so there was the nagging suggestion that if Vardon and Ray had participated, perhaps McDermott would not have won. So there was much anticipation for the 1913 US Open, when the best British golfers would meet head to head with the best Americans, including McDermott, the spunky two time winner, defending national champion and odds on favorite to win the open.

But a week before the championship, most of the open field were entered in a popular regional tournament at Shawnee-on-Delaware, where the first great showdown between American and British golfers would take place.

On this trip to America, Vardon and Ray were accompanied by Wilfred Reid, of Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, a formidable tournament player who would later become the golf pro at ACCC.

Though there was some animosity among the British as Wilfrey and Ted Ray got into fist fight, things were more light-hearted on the American side of the locker room. When twenty year old Walter Hagen showed up, having quit his assistant pro job to try to make living as a full time tournament player, he said, ‘I’m here to help you beat the foreigners,” getting a laugh out of McDermott, who went on to win the tournament handily, by eight strokes.

In the Shawnee locker room, flush with victory, McDermott gave a short speech that would change the nature of the game of golf forever.

Since the tournament had received widespread media attention, there were reporters present from all of the major newspapers in America and Great Britain when McDermott stood up, welcomed the foreign guests and promised them they wouldn’t take the US Open trophy home with them. While some, including the USGA officials, considered McDermott’s remarks rude and ordered him to apologize, which he did, McDermott also said he was misquoted in the news. These were news articles that took golf off the sports pages and put it on the front pages of newspapers throughout America and the world.

Thanks to Pete Trenhan for finding and passing on a news report in which McDermott tried to clarify the situation, in which he said, “I have been horribly misquoted in the papers, and people not cognizant of the true facts are censuring me right and left. The correspondence, as well as some of the golfers at Shawnee, took, my words in the wrong light and this caused all the trouble. They should have looked at them in a broadminded manner and not taken exception to a few harmless words, delivered in a laughing manner.”

“The papers read, ‘The open champion, with a sneering twirl of his mouth, jumped on a chair and said, the visiting English golfers may as well go back home, as their quest of the American open championship honors would get them nowhere in particular.’ My exact words were ‘I Wish Ray and Vardon great success, but the people of this country needn’t worry or fear as to the cup going to the other side. The professional gloves are able enough to take care of the trophy and protect it, as conditions are all in their favor, just as much as they were in the visitors’ favor on their home courses across the pond.’ I then dwelt shortly on the method of scoring, saying that ours was equal to the system abroad, and hence all of the American professionals were sure of holding their own under any scoring plan.”

“On dismounting, it was called to my attention that the Englishmen were hurt and felt insulted at these words. I was told to see them personally, and I apologized to Vardon, Ray and Reid, beseeching his pardon if either thought my words were directed at slurring, and likewise told the newspapers. I meant nothing less than my words ordinarily would have been interpreted. The Americans, in my opinion, were equally clever at the game as foreigners, and hence would fully able to hold their own with all ‘invaders’ to this side, being especially favored with familiarity with home greens and other conditions. I am broken hearted over the affair, and the way the papers used my speech. No harm was meant, and I am certainly sorry that my talk has been taken up in this manner.”

In any case, the cat was out of the bag, and the greatest game was set up for the 1913 US Open at Brookline. It wasn’t the greatest game because of what happened on the course, or because the young, unknown amateur Francis Ouimet kept McDermott’s promise that the US Open trophy would not travel across the pond, it was the greatest game because McDermott made it so.

And now we have the Walker and Ryder Cups and other intense international rivalries –friendly team competitions between nations, in part sparked by Johnny McDermott.

So for a slightly built, brash teenage dropout, McDermott accomplished quite a lot in his first 21 years –– after the first dozen years of domination by British and Scottish professionals, becoming the first American to win the national championship, he was the first American to defend his title, which hasn’t been done very often, he helped spark the intense national rivalry that exists today, and is still today, the youngest champion ever.

Certainly the arrogant, combative, bigoted McDermott is best left forgotten, but unfortunately the insane part is true. While he accomplished a lot in his first 21 years, the rest of his life was pretty simple.

Totally under control on the golf course, where he was the master, things he had no control over began to affect his life. It all started innocently enough, when McDermott missed a ferry in England and arrived late to the British Open and didn’t play. Then on the way home his steamship was in a collision, and he survived the harrowing experience in a lifeboat.

Arriving home he learned his stock portfolio had tanked. The final straw was a letter from Vardon canceling a proposed visit to the ACCC for what would have been a popular exhibition. One late October morning the once spunky, arrogant and proud McDermott was found unconscious on the pro shop floor, having apparently suffered a nervous breakdown. As something that doctors of that day knew little of, McDermott spent the rest of his life in and out of sanitariums, most notably Norristown hospital, where a six hole golf course was laid out over the grounds for him to play as a form of therapy.

Wilfred Reid was at the very first meeting of the PGA, where one of the items on the agenda was to start a fund and hold a tournament to raise money for the medical care of John McDermott. The cost of the institutions often left McDermott at home where his two sisters, took care of him, sometimes dropping him off at a local golf course, where the pro would match him with strangers who didn’t know him.

Tim Debaufree and others played a round with McDermott in his later years, and said that he still used his old wooden clubs and refused to use a golf tee, preferring to pinch a piece of sand into a mound like they did in the old days. And he played remarkably well, especially his chip shots onto the green. Then his golf clubs were stolen from the back of his sister’s car, and he didn’t play as often.

In the end his sisters drove him around to the various clubs, including ACCC, where he was treated as an honored guest, and where the McDermott room in the clubhouse is named after him. He had lost the fire in his eyes and the passion in his heart. Gone was the arrogance and combative spirit, but there was still a sense of pride in his accomplishments and a vision in his eyes that reflected what might have been had John reached his potential and become the greatest golfer ever.

A few months before he died, McDermott’s sister dropped him off at the 1972 US Open at Merion, where for awhile, dressed in his shabby and wrinkled suit, he was stationed alone against a wall, in the way of a busy assistant pro who ordered him out of the pro shop. Others recognized him however, and the assistant pro was told, “do you know you just kicked a two-time US Open Champion out of my pro shop?”

Arnold Palmer recognized McDermott, went up to him, put his arms around him and asked him how his game was going. McDermott reportedly said his long game was okay but his putting needed some work, and they both agreed that all they could do was practice. 

 A few weeks later McDermott died in his sleep and is now buried next to his sisters at a cemetery in nearby Yeadon. Since they never married, the sisters gave one of McDermott’s US Open medals to Leo Fraser, and after he died, the Fraser family decided to donate the medal to the USGA, where it is on display at their museum at Far Hills, NJ.

Now, when ever they mention Johnny McDermott we can think of him as he was, a young, arrogant, obsessive, competitive champion in the true sense of the word. We can remember him as the first American, the first American defender, still the youngest to have won the national open championship. We can think of McDermott whenever Americans are pitted against foreign golfers, and we can remember him every time a young, brash, arrogant and hot kid comes along, who they say, if he lives up to his potential, can be the best ever.

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