Tuesday, July 9, 2013

2013 US OPEN 100th Anniversary of the “Greatest Game.”

2013 US OPEN 100th Anniversary of the “Greatest Game.”
By Bill Kelly

There was a lot of history behind the 2013 US Open at Merion in Philadelphia, but none more significant than the 100th anniversary of the “Greatest Game” - the 1913 U.S. Open, and quite fitting that it was won by Justin Rose of England.

It might have happened over a century ago, but you can still soak up some of history at the venerable Atlantic City Country Club clubhouse because that’s where the legend of “the Greatest Game” began, and despite the 100 years that has elapsed, you can still feel the history emanating from the clubhouse walls, especially in the historic Tap Room or the McDermott Room, named in honor of Johnny McDermott, who made “The Greatest Game” great.

When people think of the 1913 US Open most think of the Country Club at Brookline, Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The story, as it has been retold in history books and on film, has young, amateur caddy, Francis Ouimet, the son of the groundskeeper, winning the national championship by defeating in a three way playoff, British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers of all time.

The rest of the story, the real story, is equally compelling and even more incredible, but seldom told.

Rather than Ouimet however, the hero is the equally young Johnny McDermott, a Philadelphia teenager who - after thirteen foreigners, becomes the first American to win the US Open (1911). He then successfully defended his title and promised the British that they won’t take the US Open trophy “back across the pond,” creating the international anticipation for the great game.

Recently described in a national golf magazine as an “abrasive, combative, embarrassing, insane bigot best left forgotten,” most golf writers either fail to mention McDermott at all or mischaracterize him, as he is by Mark Frost in his book “The Greatest Game,” and the movie based on the book.

John McDermott is truly one of America’s forgotten heroes, for without him, there would not be “the Greatest Game” at all. He made the game great.

Before McDermott the United States National Open championship was won by golf professionals from the British isles who had either found work in America or were visiting British champions. Harry Vardon visited America a few times on promotional tours, usually taking the Open trophy with him.

McDermott, the short, slight and spunky Irish teenager knocked the British champions off their horse, not only becoming the first American, but at nineteen years, the youngest champion ever, and he won it back to back (1911-1912), the sign of a true champion, as Walter Hagen said.

Although McDermott did beat Alex Smith and other British professionals, Harry Vardon didn’t play in those tournaments, and neither did British champions Ted Ray or Wilfred Reid, so there were whispers that McDermott couldn’t really beat the best of the Brits.

For McDermott that day finally came in June 1913 when, shortly before the Open, a preliminary tournament was held at Shawnee-on-Delaware, which included most of the top Open field including Vardon, Ray and Reid.

McDermott silenced his critics and everyone else when he soundly defeated Vardon and Ray by eight strokes and then, standing up on a chair in an impromptu locker room speech, promised the foreign guests they wouldn’t take the Open Trophy home with them “back across the pond.”

Fighting words for sure, and quickly quoted by the foreign press and New York Times and even though McDermott apologized and recanted some of it, the message was oft repeated, stirring up a nationalistic fever on both sides of the “pond” that hadn’t been felt since the War of 1812.

McDermott’s promise took golf from the sports page to the front page, and got ordinary people who had never played the game, to become spectators and to pay attention to what happened at the 1913 US Open at the Country Club at Brookline.

“The Greatest Game” wasn’t great because of great shots or great play, it was a great game because Johnny McDermott, in his youthful, raging brigadier - made it so.

In the book “The Greatest Game,” McDermott is downplayed as a sidebar, and marginalized as unlikeable, and in the movie he is portrayed as a tall, red head lout with a mustache, hardly the quiet and demur, short and skinny kid he really was.

The son of a West Philadelphia mailman, McDermott discovered golf at the old Aronomick, and found work first as a caddy and after dropping out of school, as a pro, perfecting his game to the point where he barely lost the 1910 US Open while only 18. After his first job as the golf pro at the Merchantville (NJ) club, McDermott was made the golf professional at the Atlantic City Country Club.

At the 1910 Open McDermott had called Alex Smith “a big lout” and promised that he would beat him the next time they played, and he did, and when he left Atlantic City for the 1911 Open McDermott told his assistant, “you are carrying the clubs of the next US Open champion,” a prediction McDermott made true.

Photos of Harry Vardon playing at Atlantic City in 1900 still hang on the walls, and Wildred Reid, who was tied for first after the second round of the “Greatest Game,” was recruited by Clarence Geist to be the first golf professional at the Seaview Country Club when it opened in 1914.

Reid, who got into a clubhouse fistfight with Ted Ray at the 1913 Open, had designed the first nine holes at the Olympia Club in San Francisco, the site of the 1912 US Open, and was the golf professional at Atlantic City Country Club in 1948, when the US Women’s Open was held there.

For many years an old photo of Francis Ouimet lining up his final putt on the 18th green at the 1913 Open was strategically placed next to the door between the Tap Room and the Men’s Locker Room at the Atlantic City Country Club, a silent but constant reminder of the significance of that moment to everyone who passed through those doors.

Shortly thereafter Johnny McDermott disappeared, went missing for years that stretched into decades, but then nearly sixty years later, he suddenly appeared like a ghost in the pro shop at the 1972 US Open at Merion.

Tired and haggard, dressed in a shabby, wrinkled suit, McDermott went unrecognized, and was ordered out of the pro shop by a young, assistant pro who thought he was in the way.

But then Arnold Palmer came along and recognized McDermott and the young assistant pro was quietly informed, “You know you just kicked a two-time winner of the US Open out of the pro shop.”

Palmer put his arms around McDermott and asked, “How’s your game coming?”

McDermott reportedly said that his putting was okay but his long game was off, to which they laughed and agreed that all you could do was practice.

McDermott died a few months later, a grave marker simply states John McDermott - 1972 - US Open Golf Champion 1911 - 1912

And now, on the 100th anniversary of “the Greatest Game,” Johnny McDermott should be remembered as the young, brash kid, the first American to win the national championship, two time winner of the US Open and at nineteen years old, still the youngest champion ever.

And he should be especially remembered as the one whose promise to keep the US Open Trophy on “this side of the pond,” took the game of golf to another level and sparked the great international competitions personified by the Ryder and Walker Cups, encouraging friendly competition among nations.

And now when things get heated up, tensions rise, sabers are rattling and we are about to go to war, perhaps someone should suggest our differences between nations should be settled like gentlemen - on the golf course.

And this year, after the 100th anniversary of “the Greatest Game,” Englishman Justin Rose took the US Open National Championship trophy home with him, across the pond.

[Bill Kelly is the author of “300 Years at the Point,” a history of Somers Point, N.J., and “Birth of the Birdie,” a history of golf at the Atlantic City Country Club. He can be reached at billkelly3@gmail.com ]

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