Tragic tale of the US Open champion of 100 years ago


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The Independent Online

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.