McDermott's sad tale after Open win

For a few weeks in the summer of 1925, in several tournaments around his native Philadelphia, an old name resurfaced in the golf scores. He was only 33 years old, but more than a decade had passed since he had left the sport. Not many people remembered what he had achieved, and fewer still knew what had become of him. Yet from out of somewhere, pulling up the caboose end of fields that he once would have ruled -- the Philadelphia Open, Shawnee Open, Pennsylvania Open -- there he was.

He had been the best golfer in the United States -- eager to practice hard, and even more keen to beat you -- who fought for the honor of American golf as if he were trying to conquer Bunker Hill instead of a few bunkers. He was a magician with the mashie. Jack Burke Sr. told columnist Red Smith a story about the man's legendary accuracy with his irons, how he could hit a few dozen balls and gather them simply by folding up the newspaper he had used as a target.

"Which newspaper?" Smith wondered.

"Oh, any tabloid would do," Burke said.

Now his behavior, not his shotmaking, was out of the ordinary. He was sullen one minute, laughing oddly the next. He was yesterday's news, a listing in tiny type.

J.J. McDermott, unattached

Until John J. McDermott, a tough and talented man from working-class Philly, came along, the U.S. Open was ruled by the British as though it was some distant colony. Immigrant or visiting golfers from Great Britain claimed the first 16 U.S. Opens, but McDermott changed America's luck. After losing a playoff in 1910 when he was only 18, McDermott, at 19 years and 10 months, won the 1911 U.S. Open at Chicago GC. He successfully defended his title in 1912 at the CC of Buffalo, becoming the first golfer to finish the championship under par.

Golf was just being unwrapped in America, and McDermott held the ribbon in his hands. He was winning $1,000 challenge matches when a house in his neighborhood rented for $20 a month. Companies paid him to endorse their products, a first for an American-born golfer. Resort guests ponied up $100 for the privilege of playing with him. At a time when most American clubs still preferred that Brits hold forth, McDermott had a coveted job at Atlantic City CC.

Then, a little more than two years after McDermott won his second consecutive U.S. Open, on Dec. 5, 1914, there was news from the Jersey shore. "McDermott Retires From Seashore Job. Noted Golfer Leaves Atlantic City Country Club -- Sticks Are Sent Home. Friends say McDermott will quit the game for a while."

McDermott was born Aug. 12, 1891, the son of a mailman who settled his young family in West Philadelphia, a streetcar suburb so packed with Irish immigrants -- the population more than doubled from 1900 to 1920 -- your neighbors could hear you dream. Amid the bustle, McDermott discovered golf at the old Aronimink GC, then located near his grandfather's farm not too far from where McDermott lived with his father, John Sr.; mother, Margaret; and sisters, Alice and Gertrude, at the orderly address of 1234 S. 50th Street. A caddie by age 9, McDermott was befriended by Aronimink pro Walter Reynolds, but McDermott loved the loneliness of golf.

"There was an apple orchard along the seventh fairway," remembered Morrie Talman, a fellow caddie and one of McDermott's few friends, "and Jack had laid out a practice area with three or four tin cans for cups. All our free time, we were there. But if any other caddie came in the orchard, Jack would just walk away."

McDermott dropped out of high school after his sophomore year to pursue golf against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to study a trade. With Reynolds' help he learned how to make clubs and give lessons, but he was drawn to playing the game and absorbed in its challenges. "Golf was McDermott's life," James Finegan writes in A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia. "He rarely drank, and though an excellent 'buck and wing' dancer, he seldom dated. There is sketchy evidence that he was once engaged to a girl in Boston, but nothing came of it and he never married."

After a short stay at Merion, McDermott held jobs at Camden County CC and Merchantville CC in New Jersey. He later applied for the pro's position at Philadelphia Cricket Club, site of the 1910 U.S. Open, but the job went to Scot Willie Anderson, the four-time U.S. Open champion who wanted the position so he could learn the course (the tactic didn't work; Anderson finished 11th and several months later was dead, at 30, of hardening of the arteries). In 1909, when he was just 17, McDermott finished fourth in the Philadelphia Open and the next year beat Anderson by one stroke to win the title.

McDermott stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 130 pounds, but he had the hands -- broad, with long, strong fingers -- of a larger man. His clubs had oversized handles, and he utilized an unusual grip in which the pinkie and ring fingers of his right hand overlapped his left so that only eight fingers touched the club. He played the ball back of center, cocked his wrists early and used his big muscles more than the Brits. His face contorted at impact, his mouth agape, as if trying to marshal energy into the hit. "Every time he made a full swing at the ball, he would give a little 'Ah-eeh,' " says Jerry Pisano, a Pennsylvania pro who played regularly with McDermott many years later. "I never forgot that. Almost like one of those karate-chop things."

McDermott's right side chased down the line after impact in a move that was ahead of its time, a tendency that may have contributed to his pinpoint control. "I have never seen a man who, when called upon to hit a ball a given number of yards, could do so with such damned irritating consistency," said Ted Ray, the 1912 British Open champion who witnessed the full fury of McDermott's skill when he and fellow Englishman Harry Vardon were routed by the young American at the Shawnee Open in the summer of 1913. Still, like all golfers of the day, McDermott was a handsy player. "Like a man flicking a fly from a horse's back," A.W. Tillinghast wrote in 1911. "McDermott used his wrists. He is the best exponent of the value of the wrist in America today, and this, coupled with his supreme confidence, is the secret of his astonishing play."

Just how brash was McDermott? After losing the 1910 U.S. Open playoff by four strokes to Alex Smith, according to John Kiernan of The New York Times, McDermott wasn't in the mood to be consoled.

"Hard luck, kid," Alex told the young challenger.

"I'll get you next year, you big tramp," McDermott responded.

McDermott kept his promise, although he put himself in a hole with a first-round 81 the following June. He rallied quickly with a 72 in the afternoon. The final 36 holes the next day were contested in a driving rain. At the end of 72 holes, McDermott was tied with George Simpson and another homebred hopeful, Mike Brady, at 307. McDermott's quest for a quick buck (a $300 bonus offered by the maker of the Colonel ball brand) nearly was disastrous. He switched from his usual Rawlings Black Circle model on the first hole of the playoff and immediately hit two shots out of bounds. But he recovered to shoot 80, beating Brady by two shots and Simpson by five.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, McDermott's historic victory -- "This is the first time a native-born golfer has won the honor" -- shared space with longer stories about Connie Mack's baseball Athletics and Charles Durburrow's eight-mile swim "from Million Dollar Pier to Ocean City in Rough Sea." McDermott's age was incorrectly reported as 21.

The following year, still not yet 21, McDermott repeated his success by beating 128 golfers in Buffalo -- the first time the Open field topped 100 -- with a 294 total, two better than Tom McNamara. The key blow was a 5-iron on the 155-yard 16th hole to 10 feet, which allowed him to play the final two holes with a two-shot cushion.

McDermott's U.S. Open defense made up for a dreadful attempt in the 1912 British Open. Able to travel across the Atlantic thanks to donations from an admiring public, McDermott crowed that he was going to make history abroad as well. Exhibitions got McDermott acclimated to links golf, and he felt comfortable enough to play, as he did at home, without a jacket, but you couldn't have guessed it from his qualifying round at Muirfield. His reliable draw turned into an uncontrollable hook in the heavy wind. He didn't break 90 and failed to make the field.

McDermott returned to the British Open and finished fifth in 1913, then the best showing by an American. A couple of months later, Vardon and Ray were on McDermott's home turf for a series of exhibitions. Because they were getting $150 a man per exhibition, some Americans thought they were being "held up" by the famous Brits, but they customarily received $500 each on their native soil. At the Shawnee Open in Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa., a tuneup for the U.S. Open that September, the duo might have wished they were home: McDermott beat Alex Smith by eight strokes, Vardon by 13, Ray by 14.

But it was the aftermath that made real news as the papers reported the words of an arrogant winner. "We hope our foreign visitors had a good time," McDermott said, "but we don't think they did, and we are sure they won't win the National Open." Some accounts were more incendiary: "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 championship honors will get them nowhere in particular." McDermott, whom The New York Times noted was "worried greatly over the affair and has almost broken down under the strain," claimed he was misquoted, his words taken out of a joking context.

USGA officials, miffed by McDermott's arrogance, threatened to reject his U.S. Open entry but relented. McDermott placed eighth at The Country Club, as Massachusetts amateur Francis Ouimet defeated Vardon and Ray in an epic underdog achievement that quickly displaced McDermott's Open history to a distant shelf in the eyes of many -- even though McDermott had offered encouragement to the 20-year-old caddie. "Just play your own game," the one American told the other. "Pay no attention to Vardon and Ray."

McDermott had worries other than his place on golf's throne. Stock investments had gone badly, erasing the financial gains that accompanied his national titles. In 1914 he sailed to Britain for another shot at the British, but missed a ferry and a train that would have gotten him to Prestwick in time for qualifying. Officials offered to bend the rules for him, but he declined, saying it would be unfair to the other competitors.

Then, just as his return voyage back to America on the swift Kaiser Wilhelm II was beginning, the ship was struck by a grain carrier in the foggy English Channel. Although the ship suffered a large gash, it made it safely back to land in England. Some passengers, including McDermott, who was in the ship's barber shop when the collision occurred, were put in lifeboats. Physically, McDermott was OK, but his mind was fragile. "Everything had hit within a year," his sister Gertrude explained. "First the stock failure, then the awful results of the Shawnee tournament, then the Open and finally that wreck."

"Johnny entered the 1914 U.S. Open," Finegan writes, "but the indomitable -- some would say abrasive -- self-confidence that had always marked his demeanor was nowhere in evidence." McDermott finished a desultory T-9 at Midlothian CC near Chicago. In mid-October, his mind cracking, he collapsed at the pro shop in Atlantic City. On Halloween his parents came to bring him home, but soon he was taken to two mental hospitals in Massachusetts and another one in Philadelphia. On June 23, 1916, less than two months from his 25th birthday, McDermott's mother committed him to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa. She was ordered to pay $1.75 a week "for support of said lunatic in said Hospital, until further notice."

The Norristown hospital opened in 1880, with a series of buildings, some ivy-covered, connected by ground-level tunnels spread over 1,000 acres. "Norristown was considered a good state hospital and compared to other state hospitals had a fairly good reputation, but they were all grossly overcrowded at the time," says Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist who has authored 20 books on mental illness. "It would generally be pretty chaotic." By the end of McDermott's first year at Norristown, there were nearly 3,000 patients in the wards.

"There were some states, Georgia and others, where he would have been worse off," says medical historian Gerald Grob, author of Mental Illness and American Society: 1875-1940. "The Pennsylvania hospitals were by no means snakepits." There were diversions. Patients got to play baseball on Wednesdays, and vitagraph movies were shown weekly. Ice cream was served every two weeks in the summer, and Easter eggs were given on Easter. The Red Cross provided Christmas packages for "soldier patients" and cigars were available thanks to a donation of 10,000 annually by a Philly businessman.

McDermott, according to Finegan, was one of the calmer patients: "[He] was labeled in the hospital reports variously as paranoid, delusional, catatonic, hallucinatory, incoherent, apathetic, silent, retarded, passive, preoccupied, seclusive. He made no contact with staff or patients. Indeed he rarely spoke. He spent endless hours scribbling unintelligibly in notebooks, claiming he was writing his mother's and father's names."

Mental institutions, when McDermott was stricken and for decades thereafter, were basically holding cells. Restraints and sedatives were used to subdue the aggressive and violent, and some patients were wrapped tightly in a sheet, which was then drenched with water so that it would shrink and bind the person even tighter. "They thought water calmed people down," Torrey explains, but it is hard to fathom McDermott received hydrotherapy after his trauma with the ship wreck.

The Norristown facility housed people from all walks of life, including actors, brassfounders, dyers, hucksters, nuns, soldiers and watchmen. In 1922 its professional golfer got a makeshift, six-hole course measuring 1,232 yards. Following a fundraising exhibition for McDermott in Philadelphia, Walter Hagen came to the hospital and played golf with him. McDermott told Hagen, "I don't think I ever saw a more beautiful view than from here. Tell the boys I'm getting along just fine."

In 1925 McDermott emerged to play his final competitive rounds. He broke 80 one round in the Philadelphia Open but finished last. At Shawnee he shot 342 for 72 holes, next-to-last and 59 strokes behind winner Willie Macfarlane, the reigning U.S. Open champ. Bud Lewis, a longtime Philadelphia area club pro who was 15 at the time, was in attendance at Merion in late July when McDermott shot 329 and beat six players. "Holed one putt on the 12th green, about 30 feet," recalls Lewis, "and he just laughed all the way to the next tee."

Although his final-round 87 was his last competitive score, McDermott continued to play. Lewis became a playing partner in the late 1930s. "I'd pick him up at Norristown," Lewis says. "He'd have his golf shoes on. He'd come down ready-made, wearing a suit and tie on. We'd play, then I'd take him back. He would shoot in the 80s. He had big grips, still the biggest I've ever seen." Lewis' conversations with McDermott were short and sometimes frustrating. "If you talked about anything serious, his eyes would water up. He kind of stuttered. He knew what was going on, but he couldn't say it. He couldn't really talk." But when Lewis brought up the U.S. Open victories, he thought it registered with the champ. "When you mentioned it, he'd give you the smile and the laugh."

On late Sunday afternoons that were fit for golf in the summers of 1956 and '57, Jerry Pisano, then a young assistant pro at Overbrook GC in Philadelphia, would wait for Gertrude and Alice to drop off their brother at the club. It was part of Pisano's job to play nine holes with McDermott, who would arrive in shirt and tie, his sleeves rolled up not quite to the elbows.

"He was an old man, kind of scrawny looking," Pisano says. "But he stayed right up with me, give or take a club. He could drive the ball 225 yards. No matter how goofy he looked or how goofy he sounded, he played golf. He would go around in 39, 40, 41. And Overbrook was a tough track. He just did it out of instinct." Pisano, eager to glean some wisdom from such a trailblazer, tried to ask McDermott golf questions -- but with little success. "I'd start conversations with him," he says, "and he'd carry conversations with me but abruptly fade out."

Whether it was the effect of medications or the fact that about half of schizophrenics improve as they age, McDermott spent more time out of the hospital the last 15 years of his life. But his mind was still limited. "He didn't know what year it was," says Pete Trenham, the longtime pro at St. Davids GC who has written a history of the Philadelphia PGA section. "I was talking to him one time, and he said, 'I saw [Bobby] Jones at Merion the other day. I think he's going to be pretty good.'"

In June 1971, 60 years after his breakthrough victory, McDermott went to Merion and watched Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open. He was a forgotten relic in outdated clothing, shooed out of the pro shop one day because he didn't look as though he belonged. Less than two months later, on Aug. 1, 11 days short of his 80th birthday and a day after he played nine holes at Valley Forge GC, McDermott's heart gave out. His passing received three paragraphs in the following day's Philadelphia Inquirer. Seats weren't hard to find at his funeral.

After McDermott's death, his devoted sisters gave his 1911 U.S. Open winner's medal to Leo Fraser, patriarch at Atlantic City CC. A couple of times a year in the 1950s and 1960s, McDermott visited his old club, and Fraser would come see him in Pennsylvania. When Fraser died in 1986, his family found the medal in Fraser's desk. They displayed it for years -- once getting a $50,000 offer from a collector -- before donating it in 1997 to the USGA.

McDermott was buried in the vast Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pa., one of scores of men with the same name laid to rest there. The John McDermott that is still -- after Jones and Palmer and Nicklaus and Miller and Woods and all the others -- the youngest man to win the U.S. Open, is in the golf-appropriate section 18. On a recent spring day following a lot of rain, bright green grass the height of U.S. Open rough lapped at the base of the monument, making it hard to see the inscription on one side.

First American Born

Golf Champion

1911 - 1912

Alice, who died in 1973, and Gertrude, who passed away in 1979, are buried next to their brother, but when Gertrude died there was no one left to make sure her name got on the stone. If you don't ask, you don't know she is there.