Veterans stick together. It’s true of all sorts of veterans. Women of a certain age were core supporters of Hillary Clinton in the spring primaries. Boomers gather annually for Woodstock reunions at Yasgur’s Farm in upstate New York.
Golfers do it, too. In 1971, Arnold Palmer—playing the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club—noticed a shambling old man being ejected from the lobby. Palmer recognized him as John McDermott who, in 1911, had been the first American to win the U.S. Open. Tossing out such a man wouldn’t do, decided Palmer, who shooed away club employees and escorted McDermott back inside.
“They talked golfer to golfer, champion to champion,” wrote golf historian John Coyne, “and Palmer then arranged for McDermott to stay at the tournament as his special guest.”
Born in Philadelphia, McDermott was the oldest child and only son of a mail carrier. He grew up on 50th Street, only blocks from Aronimink Golf Club at 52nd Street and Chester Avenue. “J.J.” McDermott began caddying at age 9. After his sophomore year at West Philadelphia High School, he dropped out to caddy full time.
McDermott was introduced to the game by Aronimink club professional Walter Reynolds, who had gotten his job when he was only 19. Golf was still new in Philadelphia—and, for that matter, in America—so there was room for youngsters.
In Europe, golf is very old. The word “golf” first appeared in 1457, when a statute was passed in Scotland forbidding it. The oldest course in the world is Edinburgh’s Musselburgh Links where Mary, Queen of Scots, played in 1567. In America, golf officially arrived in 1873 when the Royal Montreal Club was formed. Fifteen years later, a Scotsman named John Reid built a three-hole course in Yonkers, N.Y., becoming the “father” of U.S. golf.
Golf came to Philadelphia in 1891. Harry C. Groome, an officer of the Philadelphia Country Club at Bala Cynwyd, was responsible for “suitable sports and pastimes” for members. But the club had spent $40,000 on a polo field, so it didn’t have a lot of spare cash. “Golf appeared to us as a game very nearly related to croquet,” said Groome years later. “We thought it might furnish mild amusement.”
He ordered a set of clubs and set three empty vegetable cans in the ground in a triangle measuring 75 yards on a side. But the clubs—available at 25 cents for 30 minutes—sat mostly unused.
In 1893, Philadelphians Marcellus Cox and Montgomery Wilcox encountered the game while summering in Canada. Excited, they hurried home to begin laying out a course near Devon. The club did not survive but perhaps prodded others to get serious. The Philadelphia Country Club laid out a nine-hole course in 1894, followed by the Philadelphia and Merion cricket clubs in 1895 and 1896.
By 1900, according to one estimate, 250,000 Americans played the game. Pennsylvania lagged behind New York and Massachusetts—with 165 and 157 courses, respectively—but the southeastern corner of the state was what one writer called a “beehive of bunkerland,” with 17 clubs.
Golf requires a lot of land, and the only people with enough of it were farmers and the private clubs of the rich. According to historian G. William Domhoff (author of Who Rules America Now?), private clubs a century ago were tools with which America’s upper class separated itself from both new immigrants and those who were homegrown but déclassé.
Déclassé like McDermott, whose father was Irish and had recently arrived.
John McDermott was small, scrawny and temperamental—“a loner,” according to Philadelphia golf historian James W. Finegan. His privileges as a club employee gave him access to the course, but McDermott never had a member’s easy manners. This would haunt him.
McDermott rarely drank, seldom dated and never married. Golf was his life. In 1908, he worked briefly at Merion’s golf shop. Later, he taught briefly at the Camden County Country Club, then joined a Merchantville club as a professional. In 1911, he was hired by the Atlantic City Golf Club.
In style, McDermott mimicked the Scottish pros. He played with an “open” golf stance—body slouched and turned toward the target. Most consider this wrong because it can cause the ball to slice (curve away from the target), but it worked for McDermott. He also played the ball back of center and had a flat backswing that left the club wrapped around him rather than high.
Again, both moves were mistakes for lesser golfers. But McDermott worked tirelessly on his game, rising before dawn to spend two or three hours hitting shots into an open newspaper, which served as his target.
“He would systematically move the paper back,” wrote Finegan, “from 110 yards to 120 yards, then to 130, 140, 150 and so on, as he went through his back from niblick to mid-iron.”
One witness later told sports writer Red Smith that, after 50 or so balls, McDermott could collect them by simply folding up the four corners of his paper. “What newspaper?” Smith supposedly asked.
“Oh,” came the answer, “any tabloid would do.”
At 8 a.m., McDermott opened the club shop and proceeded to wait on members. At the end of the day, he returned to the course and played until dark. Then, he putted by lamplight.
In 1910, only 18, McDermott won the Philadelphia Open and immediately aimed for the next level—the U.S. Open. First played in 1895, the U.S. Open for its first 25 years was an occasion for English and Scottish players to humiliate the Americans. But that year, McDermott—a journeyman golfer to most—surprised the field by battling into a three-way playoff with Alex Smith, a previous winner, and his brother. The Smiths were twice McDermott’s age and vastly more experienced. McDermott lost, but he never played a bad round, scoring 75. And then?
According to Finegan, “McDermott tracked Smith down afterward in the middle of his locker-room celebration, jammed a finger in his face and stunned everyone within earshot by warning the champ that he intended to beat him senseless next year.”
In the genteel world of early 20th-century golf, this was terrible manners.
Yet he did win in 1911. McDermott started badly, scoring an 81 in the morning but redeeming himself with a 72 in the afternoon. That left him four strokes behind the leader in a three-way tie for second place.
The leader had a bad second day, and the trio who had been contending for second found themselves battling for first. His opponents were less formidable than the Smiths, so McDermott carried the day.
Again, though, he gave the golfing community reason to frown. McDermott had gone into the match predicting his own victory. Gentlemen didn’t do that. And he readily switched balls when a manufacturer offered $300 to the winner using its brand. It struck many as too grasping.
Still, McDermott’s win was historic, ending the domination of the British pros. He retained the title in 1912, but by then, the McDermott streak was already starting to run out.
McDermott failed to qualify for the 1912 British Open. After crowing that he would show the old country how golf was played, he shot a 93 and slunk out of Britain on a night ship. The British press roasted him. McDermott did better in 1913 but still didn’t win.
Then McDermott was widely condemned for his remark after beating British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at a series of exhibition matches in the Poconos. Flushed with victory, the 21-year-old stood on a chair and said, “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 [U.S.] Open.”
Finegan called it “a display of arrogance that may have no equal in American golf.” The USGA considered barring him from the Open. McDermott, initially unaware that he’d offended, apologized. Then, depressed, he finished eighth in the Open.
Investments went sour. In 1914, he missed a train and arrived at the British Open too late to play. Disappointed, he sailed for home on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, which collided with a grain ship in the English Channel. McDermott bobbed for hours in a lifeboat. At that year’s U.S. Open, he finished at 300—10 strokes behind rising champion Walter Hagen. His familiar and abrasive self-confidence seemed missing.
A month later, McDermott blacked out in Atlantic City. A breakdown followed and, in 1916, his mother committed him to the Norristown State Hospital, from which he was never discharged, though he lived to almost 80. According to Finegan, he was “usually seen lying on his bed—frequently he curls up in the fetal position.”
Paranoid, he claimed everyone was against him, particularly golf officials who didn’t want him to win. He scribbled for hours in notebooks. “There is little evidence that any serious efforts were undertaken at Norristown to restore his mental health,” wrote Finegan.
Fortunately, McDermott’s sisters visited weekly and were allowed to take their “Johnny” on outings. Occasionally, they went to a golf course, where he watched but did not play.
Years later, on one such outing, McDermott entered the Merion club hoping to meet the players gathered for the 1971 U.S. Open. But he was dressed so poorly that he was ordered out.
Appropriately, it was Palmer—the son of a golf course employee who, like McDermott, learned after-hours—who brought him back. McDermott spent the day with the fans of “Arnie’s Army,” watching as Lee Trevino (another player with hardscrabble origins) won an 18-hole playoff.
Two months later, he died in his sleep.
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at email@example.com.