John McDermott: The first American winner of the U.S. Open who went insane at 26
Most golf fans know the story of Francis Ouimet, Massachusetts-born caddie, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline. Ouimet’s win, subject of The Greatest Game Ever Played, kickstarted the popularity of the game in the U.S. as the young American vanquished Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
But while the default assumption might be that Ouimet was the first American-born winner of the United States’ national championship, he wasn’t. That honor belongs to Philadelphian John J. McDermott. McDermott won the U.S. Open in 1911 and again in 1912. At just 19 when he captured his first Open, McDermott remains the second-youngest to win a major championship.
A cantankerous, hot-headed fellow, McDermott was the son of a Philadelphia mailman who dropped out of high school to pursue golf. At only only 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, McDermott had a quick-tempoed, wristy action that was remarkably precise. Famed architect, A.W. Tillinghast compared the swing to “a man flicking a fly from a horse’s back.”
He first competed in the U.S. Open when he was just 16, finishing 49th at the 1909 edition. A pro, McDermott landed a job at Atlantic City Country Club, practicing feverishly with a single-minded determination.
When John McDermott began putting a peg in the ground at professional events, the game was dominated by pros from England in Scotland, many of whom had traveled to the states to take the best club jobs.
In the years following his 1909 U.S. Open debut, McDermott’s tireless practice began to pay off. He finished second at the 1910 U.S. Open, losing in a playoff. At the 1911 U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club, McDermott vanquished George Simpson and Mike Brady in a playoff, becoming the youngest U.S. Open champ ever at 19 years and 10 months.
Just as impressively, he defended his title in 1912, winning his second-straight U.S. Open at the Country Club of Buffalo. Not surprisingly, McDermott’s star shone brightly in the wake of his second win, and endorsements and lucrative exhibition matches opened the financial floodgates.
As he was a braggart and, really, a huge jerk, few were upset to see McDermott losing money on poor investments ahead of the 1913 U.S. Open. And his put-downs of British golfers nearly led to him being banned from the competition at Brookline, but he played and finished tied for eighth.
Things started to get weird for McDermott at this point. He took a steamer to the UK for the 1914 British Open, but got there too late to play. Returning to the States, his ship, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, crashed into another vessel in soupy fog on the English Channel.
The lasting effects of the shipwreck were substantial, and the specter of schizophrenia hovered about the 23-year-old on his return to his club job at Atlantic City Country Club. He blacked out in the clubhouse and effectively ended the most promising playing career in golf at the time.
He left ACCC in 1914 and wound up bouncing between living with his family in Philadelphia and mental hospitals. The two-time U.S. Open winner was eventually committed to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown and diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia.
At the hospital, McDermott “made no contact with staff or patients,” James Finegan wrote in A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia. “Indeed, he rarely spoke. He spent endless hours scribbling unintelligibly in notebooks, claiming he was writing his mother’s and father’s name.”
McDermott made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to return to play professionally, and was occasionally spotted spectating at local tournaments. He continued to golf recreationally at the asylum’s six-hole golf course and with friends until his death at 79 in 1971, but he was never the spirited, club-throwing U.S. Open winner after checking into the State Hospital.
He was reportedly a spectator at the 1971 U.S. Open at Philadelphia’s Merion Country Club, looking and acting oddly, when club staff tried to have him removed from the club. None other than Arnold Palmer saw what was happening and is reported to have said, “This gentleman is the oldest living U.S. Open champion, and he is my special guest.”
He died six weeks later.