Johnny McDermott, the first American-born U.S. Open champion, will never be revered to the same degree as Francis Ouimet, the young American amateur who shocked the world by defeating British stalwarts Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., to win the 1913 U.S. Open.
Ouimet’s victory is one of the great underdog stories in American sporting history. Books have been written and a Disney movie was made about his heroics.
Because McDermott became mentally ill not long after his consecutive U.S. Open victories – which immediately preceded Ouimet’s win – his accomplishment sometimes gets lost in the narrative. The first of his U.S. Open victories in 1911 came when he was 19 years, 10 months old, and the Philadelphia native remains the youngest champion.
McDermott’s life stands in stark contrast to Ouimet, who became an ambassador for the game through not only his U.S. Open victory, but his two U.S. Amateur titles, six Walker Cup appearances and six captaincies of USA Walker Cup Teams. McDermott, who was far more bombastic than Ouimet, saw his life unravel two years after enjoying the two biggest moments of his brief career.
Starting in 1914, McDermott was in and out of mental hospitals, group homes or in the care of relatives. Even though he lived to age 79, dying just a few weeks after he attended the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, his last U.S. Open start came in 1914.
His story, as tragic and melancholic as it was, is not lost on the USGA. Recently, the USGA obtained one of McDermott’s clubs, a mashie (a 5-iron in modern-day terms) at auction and it is now on display at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J., along with a putter he used to win the 1912 U.S. Open. The mashie will be temporarily on display through this year’s U.S. Open.
“The victories of McDermott’s youth, including his back-to-back U.S. Open wins in 1911 and 1912, stand in sharp relief against the mental-health challenges he faced in later life,” said Adam Barr, the director of the USGA Golf Museum. “One wonders what more he could have achieved had he not had to wrestle with such demons. Having his mashie in the collection is a poignant connection to one of the greatest American players of the early 20th century.”
The late historian Robert Sommers, who for many years was the editor of the USGA’s Golf Journal magazine, once said of McDermott: “If not for his illness, he could have been the greatest of them all.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1891, McDermott dropped out of West Philadelphia High School in 1907 to pursue a professional golf career. Most golfers of that era didn’t aspire to become professionals. The PGA Tour didn’t exist and many clubs forbade professionals from entering their clubhouses.
McDermott’s first professional job was at the Merchantville Field Club in Cherry Hill, N.J., but it wasn’t until he relocated to Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club that his game began to gain notoriety. In his U.S. Open debut in 1909, he finished 49th. A year later, he lost in a playoff to Alex Smith at Philadelphia Cricket Club.
“He had a long, loose, flowing swing,” said Sommers, “somewhat like the old St. Andrews swing of the feather-ball period, but with more body turn.”
Ray once marveled, “I have never seen a man who, when called upon to hit a ball a given number of yards, can do so with such damned irritating consistency.”
The first 16 U.S. Opens had been won by British professionals, many of whom had emigrated to the U.S. to provide lessons or compete in exhibitions or tournaments.
McDermott would end that dominance in 1911, defeating Mike Brady and George Simpson in a playoff at Chicago Golf Club. He would repeat as champion in 1912 at the Country Club of Buffalo, this time by two strokes over Tom McNamara.
He was again one of the pre-championship favorites in 1913, but his 308 total was four strokes off the scores of Ouimet, Vardon and Ray. That year, McDermott had tied for fifth in The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, the best finish by an American up to that point. He also won the Philadelphia Open and an open tournament at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware in Pennsylvania, with Ray and Vardon in the field.
The following year, McDermott would tie for ninth in what would be his final U.S. Open start.
McDermott’s bout with mental illness could have started after his second U.S. Open triumph, when some major financial investments went sour.
More misfortune occurred after he arrived late to the 1914 Open Championship due to travel difficulties. En route home, his ship collided with another vessel, and he had to be rescued by a lifeboat. Once home, McDermott blacked out as he entered the clubhouse at Atlantic City Country Club, where he was the head professional. He was only 23 years old, but his career was essentially over due to a mental breakdown.
He was admitted to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa., where his sisters often visited on weekends.
The mashie the Museum obtained was custom-made between 1908 and 1910 by Anderson of Anstruther in Fife, Scotland. It is stamped J.J. McDermott along with the Anderson “cleekmark” arrow. The original wood shaft also has the shaft stamp from the clubmaker.
Now USGA Museum visitors can view this wonderful piece of history while learning the story of America’s first homegrown U.S. Open champion.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.