Tragic tale of the US Open champion of 100 years ago

 

This is the saddest story of a golf champion you will ever read. His name was Johnny McDermott and there was a time when he was the young hero of American golf, a slim Rory McIlroy of a specimen with a bouncing step and a whippy swing. He was the first American-born US Open champion when still a teenager, and 100 years ago he won again at the age of 20, so ending forever the long domination of the event by British-bred players. And then it all went horribly wrong. He spent almost all the last 55 years of his life in an institution, and although he could still swing a club, he could barely string a sentence together.

McDermott was born the son of a hard-drinking, free-with-his-fists mailman in West Philadelphia in 1891. He first stepped on to a course as a boy caddy. Trying the sport for himself, he discovered a natural talent which he honed by hours of hitting mashie shots (the equivalent of today's 5-iron) on to a sheet of newspaper 150 yards away.

Soon, this slight teenager was challenging the area's professionals to high-stake matches, and winning most of them. In 1909, he finished 48th at the US Open and a year later, aged only 18, he tied for first, only to lose the play-off to Alex Smith. The youngster told Smith: "I'll get you next year, you big tramp."

He duly did so, becoming the first American-born winner of the US Open at the age of 19, still the youngest ever title-holder. Less than 6ft and weighing less than 10st, he had a free-flowing swing that incorporated a considerable punch, thanks to inordinately large and powerful hands. Like Jack Nicklaus, a large man with small hands, he used the interlocking grip but compensated with eye-catchingly thick grips.

McDermott was close to being the best player in the world, and he set about proving that, retaining his US Open title at Buffalo. The following year he won the Western Open (then regarded as a virtual major) and was all set to confront Britain's premier players, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, who had come over to play the US Open. A curtain-raiser event, the Shawnee Open, was held, and McDermott, still only 21, won it at a canter, beating Vardon by 13 shots. All might have been well for a third successive US Open, had not someone then called upon the young champion to say a few words. He climbed on a chair, and said: "We hope our visitors had a good time, but we don't think they did, and we are sure they won't win the National Open."

Neither wise nor gracious, his remarks were seized upon by one reporter, conflated into a deliberate insult to visitors, and the full force of his country's press descended. Distraught, he apologised, but the USGA threatened to ban him from the national championship and the opprobrium very nearly broke him.

Worse was to come. A plunging stock market cost him dear and his trip to Britain for the 1914 Open was a miserable farce: travelling the Atlantic only to arrive too late for his tee-off time. The return journey was even worse. His ship hit a steamer in the Channel, and he spent the best part of a day and night in a lifeboat.

His fragile temperament was now at breaking point, and in 1916 his parents had him committed to an institution for the insane in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He stayed there for most of the rest of his long life. There was a fleeting foray back into tournament golf in 1925, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones visited and showed him kindnesses, local pros would take him out for a round, and a six-hole course was built in the hospital grounds. But, incoherent without a club in his hands, he spent his time scribbling nonsense in notebooks.

In 1971, he attended the US Open at Merion, won by Lee Trevino. He went into the pro shop but this weirdly dressed and obviously haywire figure was asked to leave. Two months later, he was dead. His funeral was attended by four people.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull

Arsenal strengthened their grip on a top-four finish with a straightforward 3-0 win over Hull City.

Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
arts + ents Samuel L Jackson and Michael Madsen have taken part in a reading of Quentin Tarantino’s axed follow-up to Django Unchained.
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit