Recalling golf’s forgotten American champion

Golf was born in the United States in the late 1880s.

Like many things in this country, golf’s roots can be traced to Europe, and the early impact of the sport came from Scotland and England. The United States Golf Association was founded in 1894. The PGA of America did not exist until 1916.

When I spoke at the opening ceremonies at the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, I pointed out that the PGA was founded by 35 golf professionals, and 14 of those were native-born Scots. There were fewer than 10 native-born Americans among those PGA charter members. Englishmen and Scots migrated to this country in the early part of the 20th century and dominated the U.S. golf scene as professionals. The first 16 U.S Opens were won by British golfers.

With an assist from Bill Fields, golf historian, here is the story of the birth of American competitive golf.

In 1909, a teenager named John McDermott made his debut in the U.S. Open. The 17-year-old shot a four-round total of 322 and finished 49th. Much to the chagrin of his father, who was a Philadelphia mailman, McDermott had dropped out of school his sophomore year to pursue his interest in golf under the tutelage of Walter Reynolds, the pro at Aronimink Golf Club.

McDermott improved his game dramatically over the next year and lost in an 18-hole playoff to Alex Smith in the 1910 U.S. Open, held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. In 1911 McDermott became the first American to win the U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club, where he outlasted two other golfers in a three-way playoff. At age 19 years, 10 months and 12 days, he remains the youngest U.S. Open champion of all-time.

In 1912 he retained his title at the Country Club of Buffalo in New York when he shot 294 for four rounds on a par-74 course, a score of 2-under par, making him the first man to break par for 72 holes in a major championship.

Following his second straight national championship, McDermott’s finances blossomed, with golf clubs being marketed under his name. He got endorsements for golf balls, and there was a high demand for his presence in lucrative exhibition matches.

At 21 years of age, McDermott was on top of the world.

He continued to perform well on the course during the next couple of years, but McDermott lost heavily in the stock market. After a win at the Shawnee Open in 1913 he boasted excessively and was criticized heavily by his fellow players. The USGA actually considered denying his U.S. Open entry.

In 1914 McDermott went to the British Open; but because of travel difficulties, he arrived too late and missed the competition. On his way home his ship collided with a grain vessel in misty conditions in the English Channel.

Shortly afterward, upon his return to the U.S. he blacked out when entering the clubhouse at the Atlantic City Country Club, where he was the club professional. On June 23, 1916, less than two months from his 25th birthday, McDermott’s mother committed him to the Norristown State Hospital for the insane. She was ordered to pay $1.75 per week “for support of said lunatic in said Hospital until further notice.”

The Norristown hospital opened in 1880 and was overpopulated with 3,000 residents when McDermott was committed. Patients could play baseball on Wednesdays, and movies were shown once a week. Ice cream was served every two weeks, and Easter eggs were given on Easter. The Red Cross provided packages for soldiers, and cigars were available thanks to a local businessman. This is where John McDermott would spend the rest of his days for the next 55 years.

According to hospital reports, McDermott was one of “the calmer patients” and was labeled as paranoid, delusional, catatonic, hallucinatory, incoherent, apathetic, silent, passive, preoccupied and reclusive. He received hydrotherapy, which was wrapping him tightly in a sheet drenched in water so it would shrink and bind him even tighter.

In 1922, Norristown installed a makeshift six-hole course measuring 1,232 yards. Following a local fundraiser, Walter Hagen came to the hospital and played golf with McDermott. On occasion, McDermott would emerge from Norristown wearing a suit and tie with his golf shoes, playing with friends at local courses. Miraculously, he could still break 40 on a consistent basis. After these rounds his friends would take him back to the hospital.

With age, McDermott looked scrawny because of his 5-foot-8, 130-pound frame. He didn’t know what year it was and would often make random statements like, “I saw Bobby Jones at Merion the other day. I think he is going to be pretty good.”

On the 60th anniversary of his U.S. Open win, McDermott attended the event at Merion and was kicked out of the golf shop because no one recognized him. In August that summer, a day after he played nine holes, McDermott died. He was 11 days short of his 80th birthday, and his funeral was sparsely attended.

He was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery, and the inscription on his tombstone read: “First American Born Golf Champion 1911-1912”

In 2011, Rory McIlroy, age 22, won his first U.S. Open at Congressional in record-setting fashion. A century earlier, John McDermott had won his two U.S. Opens before turning 21.

Few modern-day golf fans have heard of McDermott. He was portrayed in the 2005 golf film “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and appears prominently in one scene where, dressed dashingly, he is celebrating with a few drinks. He issues a loud, boastful challenge to a group of golfers in the clubhouse before the start of the 1913 U.S. Open, won by Francis Ouimet.

McDermott has yet to take his place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Granted his career was short, but the magnitude of his accomplishments before the age of 21 are unsurpassed in the annals of golf.