Mystery shrouds U.S. Open champ from 1911

Johnny McDermott

Johnny McDermott

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BETHESDA, Md. — Johnny McDermott arrived at the golf course without fanfare — virtually unnoticed, to be more precise — dropped off by his sister near the front door.

The assistant golf pro at the Overbrook Golf Club was scheduled to meet McDermott at the door, take him to the course and play nine holes, the way they did every Saturday and Sunday when the weather was good.

“It was him and me and one caddie and that was it,” said the golf pro, Jerry Pisano, who worked at Overbrook, one of the very first country clubs on this side of the Atlantic, situated near the Main Line just outside Philadelphia. “No real conversation to speak of, except maybe a little bit about golf. I was always interested in trying to figure out his past, what happened to him over in Europe, but I never could get any definitive answers.”

Very few could. But before Arnie had an army or Nicklaus had won any of his 18 majors or Tiger turned golf into front-page news, Johnny McDermott set the standard for American golf.

At 19, the diminutive kid from West Philly became the first American to win the U.S. Open in a sport dominated by the British. This year marks the 100th anniversary of McDermott’s groundbreaking win. But even today, a century later, McDermott’s sudden rise and equally quick fall remain a mystery to most.

Within five years of his crowning moment, he was all but gone from professional golf, assigned to a home for mentally ill patients, driven crazy — legend has it — by a series of mishaps that cut short a career that could have been for the ages.

More than four decades after McDermott’s decline, Pisano spent the better part of a year playing on weekends with the two-time champion (he also won in 1912), who remains the youngest person to win the U.S. Open. They played hour after hour of golf without really saying a word.

“It was two different worlds,” Pisano said. “He knew his golf. He could talk golf to you — ‘I cut that one a little, turned that one over.’ Talking about anything other than that, practically, he was not able to do that. It was ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ and that was about it.”

McDermott used old clubs with hickory shafts, a wood-shafted Bobby Jones putter and a double-overlap grip in which only eight fingers touched the club.

He was 5-foot-8, weighed maybe 130 pounds but could swing as hard and hit the ball as far as any of them back in his day. He had what was described as a “wristy” swing, one that would be frowned upon in this day and age, where the players and their swings all seem to come out of a factory. But in an era well before golf coaches and swing gurus and video, McDermott learned his game in the dirt on the practice fields near his home in Philly.

Had the game — and the hype — been what it is now, McDermott might have been trumpeted as the leader of “The Next Generation of American Golf.” Instead, he was part of America’s first generation, alongside Walter Hagen and Francis Ouimet, the 1913 U.S. Open winner whose victory is widely credited for giving golf its popular start in the United States.

Hagen and Ouimet went on to long, successful careers.

McDermott’s was all but over by 1916.

It started unraveling three years before. After crushing the greats of the sport — Brits Alex Smith, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — at a U.S. Open tuneup tournament in Shawnee, Pa., McDermott was quoted as saying: “We hope our foreign visitors had a good time, but we don’t think they did, and we are sure they won’t win the National Open.”

It was a show of brashness and bravado that fit McDermott’s personality, but he claimed his words had been taken out of context, that he had only been joking. The USGA, shocked by the behavior, considered barring McDermott from the U.S. Open but let him play. But the damage had been done. According to a New York Times account, McDermott “worried greatly over the affair and has almost broken down under the strain.”

Meantime, McDermott’s financial picture had grown worse, as the investments he made with his earlier U.S. Open winnings sank. In 1914, hoping to climb back atop the golf world, he headed across the Atlantic for the British Open, but missed the ferry and train he needed to catch to get to qualifying.

His return home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II was disrupted early when a grain carrier hit the ship in the English Channel. The ship made it back to land in Britain, but not before McDermott and a number of other passengers were sheltered in lifeboats.

“Physically, McDermott was OK, but his mind was fragile,” Bill Fields wrote in a stirring account of McDermott’s life in Golf World magazine.

“Everything had hit within a year,” McDermott’s sister, Gertrude, is quoted as saying in the magazine. “First the stock failure, then the awful results of the Shawnee tournament, then the Open and finally that wreck.”

McDermott played in the 1914 U.S. Open but finished ninth. “The indomitable — some would say abrasive — self-confidence that had always marked his demeanor was nowhere in evidence,” wrote James Finegan in ‘A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia.’

That turned out to be McDermott’s final major. Later that year, his parents checked him into a mental hospital for the first time. In June 1916, his mother committed him to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa., where, according to Golf World, she was ordered to pay $1.75 a week “for support of said lunatic in said Hospital, until further notice.”

McDermott dabbled in golf for the rest of his life — on a six-hole course built on the grounds of the hospital, in a few more professional tournaments and on outings such as the ones he made to Overbrook during the summers of 1956 and ‘57.

Pisano was a pretty good pro himself and a student of the game. He played in four U.S. Opens, beginning in 1962, when Jack Nicklaus won his first major, beating Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont.

Pisano said the scene of McDermott walking through the door at Overbrook more than 40 years after his U.S. Open win wouldn’t hold a candle to watching Palmer or Nicklaus walk into any golf club today.

“No, because, basically, I don’t think too many people knew he was there,” Pisano said. “It was always in the afternoon. Nine holes. Whatever notoriety he had was strictly of a local nature. When he came to the course, I’m not sure anybody recognized him. I knew him. But I’m a whole different story. Golf was my business. I don’t think there was any hoopla about it.”

McDermott died in 1971, again virtually unnoticed. The inscription on his simple gravestone, an easy one to miss at the expansive Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pa., reads: “First American Born Golf Champion 1911 - 1912.”

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