This article first appeared in sister publication Irish America magazine. To browse their Sports Archives, click here.
When Rory McIlroy walked down the 18th fairway at Congressional on June 19, 2011, the TV flashed a list of six young golfers who won the U.S. Open in their 20’s since World War II.
The AP golf beat writer went on to note that McIlroy was the youngest to have won the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones in 1923, when he too was 22 years old.
Meanwhile, John McDermott, the first American to win the U.S. Open, was forgotten and unheralded. Not only was McDermott the first American to win the Open, he was also the youngest, at just 19 years of age.
He did it in June 1911, nearly one hundred years to the day that McIlroy won, and, as they are now with McIlroy, people said that McDermott had the potential of being the best player ever.
The son of a mailman, McDermott grew up in an Irish neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Against his father’s wishes, he dropped out of high school to work full time as a caddy and golf professional at the Aronimink Golf Club, just a few blocks from his home.
He first came to the public’s attention at the U.S. Open in 1910, which was held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s St. Martin’s course. McDermott tied Alex and Macdonald Smith, two brothers from a famous Scottish golfing family. Alex Smith won the three-way playoff, but when he tried to console the 18-year-old saying, “Tough luck, kid,” McDermott replied brashly, “I’ll get you next year, you big lout.” And he did.
Following the 1910 Open, McDermott took a job as the Merchantville (NJ) Golf Club pro before being hired as the professional at the prestigious Atlantic City Country Club. At “the Northfield Links,” as they called it, McDermott rented a room in a small cottage across the street (that is still there), and took the trolley to Atlantic City every morning to attend mass, after which he practiced golf and gave lessons. They say McDermott would spread out newspaper over an area as a target, and then narrow it down until he could hit a small area at will.
The 1911 Open was played at the Chicago Golf Club. And this time Smith didn’t make the playoff. George Simpson, Mike Brady and McDermott finished on even terms. Simpson was ill and didn’t play and McDermott won by three shots over Brady.
McDermott retained his title the following year when the Open was played at the Country Club of Buffalo, beating out two other Irish Americans, Tom McNamara, and Mike Brady.
McDermott’s finances blossomed after the 1912 win; he played exhibition matches and endorsed golf balls and clubs. He also went to Europe to play. He didn’t qualify for the British Open in 1912, but in 1913 he finished fifth, the first American to finish in the top five.
McDermott was treated with more dignity than Walter Travis, who preceded him and had his Schenectady (center shafted) putter banned by the British. But there was a developing animosity between the American and British golfers, which was intensified by McDermott at Shawnee-on-Delaware in 1913.
Shawnee was considered a prequel to the Open, which was to be played a week later at Brookline, MA. McDermott really made his mark when he played against Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers to ever play the game. Both British professionals, they routinely won the U.S. Open, but hadn’t played in the two Opens won by McDermott, so there was the nagging question as to whether McDermott could actually beat the best. That question was answered at Shawnee, when McDermott won the tournament outright, defeating Vardon and Ray by eight strokes.
Afterwards, in the locker room full of reporters, McDermott made a brazen promise that the U.S. Open trophy would not be taken back across the pond. He was quoted extensively in the British press, and that speech put golf on the front pages of every major newspaper in America and the British Empire.
Although McDermott was criticized, claimed he was misquoted and apologized, the media frenzy following McDermott’s nationalistic sentiments created much anticipation for the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club at Brookline. When McDermott fell behind (he finished in 8th place), it was left to American Francis Ouimet, an equally young 20-year-old caddy and dedicated amateur, to keep McDermott’s promise. The tournament ended in a three-way tie between Ouimet, Ray and Vardon.
McDermott advised Ouimet to “pay no attention to Vardon and Ray and play your own game,” which Ouimet did. In what was later called “The Greatest Game,” he won the day over the two British professionals. A photo of Ouimet getting ready to putt in his final shot, with Vardon, Ray, McDermott and a huge crowd looking on, hung on the wall next to the Atlantic City CC locker room door for decades.
In 1914, McDermott tied for 9th place in the U.S. Open, his old self-confidence greatly diminished. He headed over to Europe to play in the British Open, but he missed a train and didn’t play in the tournament. Returning home by steamship, McDermott was in the barber’s chair when his ship was rammed by another ship in the English Channel and had to return to port. The incident had a serious effect on McDermott. Though physically fine, he was mentally shaken by the accident. When he finally got home, he learned that his stocks had tanked and he was broke.
One morning at the Atlantic City Country Club where he was a professional, McDermott blacked out and was found unconscious. He apparently suffered a nervous breakdown. After that, he was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life living either with his sister in Philadelphia or in local mental institutions. He did play on occasion, however, with Tim DeBaufre at Valley Forge and others, until his clubs were stolen from his sister’s car.
One club survived. While playing with a stranger, he borrowed a club from his playing companion, liked it, and was allowed to keep it. In return, he gave up an old wooden mashie, saying to his incredulous playing partner, “That club helped me win two U.S. Open championships.”
Besides his sisters, Gertrude and Alice, Atlantic City Country Club owner Leo Fraser also made sure McDermott was taken care of in his later years. Fraser invited him to visit the club and named the McDermott Room after him. In return, McDermott’s sisters gave Fraser one of his U.S. Open championship medals, valued at $40,000, which the Fraser family donated to the USGA, and is now on display at the USGA museum in Far Hills, NJ.
When the 1971 U.S. Open was held in Philadelphia at the Merion Country Club, McDermott’s sister left him alone in the clubhouse where a young assistant pro, Bill Pappa, thought John was in the way and ordered him out of the pro shop.
As it was later reported, “In 1971, Arnold Palmer, while playing the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, noticed a shambling old man bring 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.” Two months later McDermott died in his sleep at his sister’s home in Philadelphia.