The First Great American Golfer

|(Tonight the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame inducts its ninth class. Here's a 2000 look at one of the most interesting new members.)

By Frank Fitzpatrick

 On peasant Sunday afternoons in the decades after World War II, two old women would drive their big car up to the pro shop at Philadelphia Country Club, or St. David's, or Merion. From the rear seat would emerge a tiny elderly man, dressed in a dated wool suit even on the hottest summer days, and wearing a look that was a bittersweet combination of confusion and recollection.

Johnny McDermott would offer some instructions to his sisters, gather himself, and stroll proudly into the shop. He'd often ask for a professional who had either died or retired years ago. Sometimes he'd find a familiar face and pleasant conversation. Sometimes the younger professionals weren't so kind.

Had they known his past, though, they would not have been so quick to dismiss this strange old man. McDermott won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1911 and 1912. He was the first American-born Open winner and the first to post a sub-par total. And at 19 in 1911, he remains the youngest champion ever.

 The story of Johnny McDermott, the son of a West Philadelphia mailman, is no less tragic than that of Payne Stewart, another two-time Open champ, who died in a 2000 plane crash.

His star burned out as fast as it appeared. Amateur Francis Ouimet's legendary 1913 Open victory immediately overshadowed McDermott's accomplishments. McDermott inadvertently created an international incident by insulting two great British golfers. A stock-market slump bankrupted him. A shipwreck nearly killed him. And finally, a nervous breakdown put him in Norristown State Hospital for the rest of his life.

"They say that before all the trouble, he was the best there was," said Pete Trenham, a veteran Philadelphia-area professional who met McDermott on some of the old man's Sunday visits to St. David's Golf Club. "But by the end, it was kind of sad to see him. He didn't know if it was 1915 or 1970."

* McDermott discovered golf as a caddie at Aronimink Golf Club, located in those early years of the 20th century in West Philadelphia. He and a friend, Morrie Talman, later the longtime professional at Whitemarsh, played and practiced endlessly at dawn or in the fading light of dusk.

Placing several newspaper sheets in the distance, McDermott would aim for them, gradually reducing the size of his target. When automobiles began to turn up at Aronimink, he would switch on their headlights and hit shots long into the night.

He did not smoke or drink, but the little Irish kid liked to gamble. As his game improved, so did his luck. Having beaten area professionals in high-stakes matches, he eventually became one, dropping out of West Philadelphia High to become an assistant at Merchantville Field Club in South Jersey.

In 1909, he entered the U.S. Open at Englewood (N.J.) Golf Club and finished 49th. When the 1910 Open came to Philadelphia Cricket Club, McDermott made it into a three-way playoff, with Scottish brothers Mac and Alex Smith. Alex Smith was the eventual winner.

"He had a long, loose, flowing swing," golf historian Robert Sommers said, "somewhat like the old St. Andrew's swing of the feather-ball period, but with more body turn."

New courses were being built in and around Philadelphia and other U.S. cities. Scottish golfers were pouring into the United States to become their professionals. According to Trenham, who has written a history of the Philadelphia PGA, 117 pros came to the United States from the town of Carnoustie alone.

Most Americans saw golf as a strange, foreign sport that only the rich enjoyed, something like cricket. Even those who liked golf were far less interested in the Open than the U.S. Amateur. Fewer than 90 entrants teed off when the 1911 Open began at the Chicago Golf Club.

This time, McDermott wound up in another three-way tie, with Mike Brady and George Simpson. The night before the playoff, the manufacturer of a new ball called "the Colonel" offered McDermott $300 to use it. Though he typically played with a Rawlings Black Circle, McDermott accepted. On the first tee the next morning, he hit his first two shots out of bounds. He salvaged a 6 but still defeated Brady by 2 shots and Simpson by 6.

The news of the Philadelphian's groundbreaking triumph sparked tremendous interest in the game. Soon, McDermott was endorsing balls and clubs as the middle class took up the game in growing numbers. The 1912 Open, at the Country Club of Buffalo, attracted a record 125 golfers.

McDermott was at 147, 2 shots in back of Alex Smith and Brady after two rounds. He finished with a 74 and a 71, spectacular scores for the era, and his 2-under 294 in 1912 marked the first time an Open champion had finished under par.

"You look back at what he accomplished," Trenham said, "and it's really quite remarkable."

* The trouble began the following summer.

With the 1913 Open to be played in Brookline, Mass., a contingent of British golfers, including the great Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, arrived early and played its way up the East Coast.

The Brits met the top American players in a tournament at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, Pa. McDermott, by now the head professional at Atlantic City Country Club, won by 8 strokes, topping Vardon by 13 and Ray by 14.

"We hope our foreign visitors had a good time," the cocky McDermott said at the awards ceremony, "but we don't think they did, and we are sure they won't win the . . . Open."

Reporters from New York and Philadelphia, covering the tournament because of the presence of Vardon and Ray, reported the comments. McDermott was criticized on both sides of the Atlantic for his "unsportsmanlike remarks."

Later in the week, an apologetic McDermott retracted his remarks in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, claiming he had been misquoted. His words betrayed his worsening mental state.

"I am brokenhearted at the affair," he said. "I am worried greatly . . . near a breakdown."

The remarks were soon forgotten when Ouimet followed McDermott's triumph over Vardon and Ray with his historic Open victory at Brookline. The Philadelphian finished 4 shots back.

Needing a rest, McDermott spent the winter in Florida. In 1914, he traveled to Prestwick for the British Open. He missed a ferry that connected with a train to Prestwick and arrived at the course late. Officials offered to make an exception for him.

"He just told them, 'No, that wouldn't be right,' " Trenham said, "and he didn't play."

Discouraged, McDermott booked passage home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II. While the ship passed through the fog-shrouded English Channel, it was rammed by a cargo vessel, the Incemore. McDermott, who had been in a barber's chair at the time, scrambled for a lifeboat and, badly shaken, eventually was rescued.

His nerves were frayed. McDermott played poorly in the 1914 Open, and not long afterward, he passed out in Atlantic City's pro shop. He entered a psychiatric hospital a short time later. At 23, his career was over.

"I think he played in a couple of local tournaments in the '20s," Trenham said, "but he didn't do very well. I first saw him in the 1960s, when he came into St. David's one Sunday and asked for Tommy Robinson, who used to be the pro there."

Bud Lewis, the former professional at Manufacturers Country Club, recalled playing several rounds with McDermott in the late 1930s at Jeffersonville Golf Club near Norristown.

"Every couple of weeks, I'd go get him at the asylum and take him to Jeffersonville and we'd play," Lewis said. "Even though he was a little haywire, you could still see some flashes of what he had been. He'd par a few holes in a row or something. I'm not sure he knew what year it was, but he never talked about the old days."

McDermott was a forgotten man when he died in 1971. At the viewing, at a Delaware County funeral home, only a handful of mourners turned out.

"I think it was me, Fred Byrod of The Inquirer and [local golf pro] Henry McQuiston," Lewis said. "That was it. It was very sad, because here was a man who had won the U.S. Open twice, the youngest man ever. But he never got the recognition he deserved."