Our first ‘Homebred’ U.S.Open Golf Champ, Johnny McDermott

As you might have guessed, I collect stories about great players from the past. Stories from when golf was more of a game, less of a television show. Here’s one about Johnny McDermott, the first American to win the U.S. Open, in 1911 and 1912. This week, as you may know, the 2007 U.S. Open begins at the Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, PA., so if nothing else this is a timely tale.

Following his U.S. Open wins, Johnny McDermott, our first “homebred” U. S. Open winner, entered the 1914 British Open, but because of travel delays he arrived too late to tee off. Returning home to the States his ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, collided with an English ship and sank. He drifted in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic for over twenty-four hours before being rescued.

When he did reach America, he learned he had been wiped out financially because of bad Wall Street investments and he took a job as the golf pro at the Atlantic City Country Club. He was then twenty-three years old and he quit playing tournament golf. Within a few years players wouldn’t even recall his name or what he had won.

A few years later McDermott began to suffer mental breakdowns and his family had him committed to the Norristown Hospital in Pennsylvania. At the hospital, the administration did allow him to design and build a short 6-hole golf course on the grounds and McDermott played on it from time to time, and once, under supervision, he was allowed out of the mental hospital to play 18 holes. He went to a golf course on Staten Island and shot an amazing 70, several strokes under par. Then he returned to the mental institution and never played golf again.

Many years later, in 1971, again with attendants, he went to the U.S. Open Championship being played at the exclusive Merion Golf Club just north of Philadelphia. It was at this country club where Johnny McDermott grew up and where he learned the game.

However, at Merion because of his dress and appearance, he was ordered out of the golf shop and told not to go near the clubhouse where he had hoped to visit the players.

With his hospital attendants, he turned away and started to leave, to go back to the hospital when Arnold Palmer, of all people, walking towards the first tee recognized the old man, this two-time U.S. Open Championship winner, and put his arms around Johnny McDermott. They talked golfer to golfer, champion to champion, and Palmer then arranged for McDermott to stay at the tournament as his special guest, with all clubhouse rights and privileges.

Two month later, a few days short of his eightieth birthday, Johnny McDermott, America’s first great “homebred” professional, now only a fading footnote in the history of the USGA, died in his sleep at the mental hospital where he has spent his life.