June 16, 2011
Only one player has ever won the US Open as a teenager. It wasn’t Jack Nicklaus. Nor Arnold Palmer. Nor Tiger Woods. The only teenager to ever win the US Open was Johnny McDermott, a teen from West Philadelphia who rocketed to the top of the golf world at age 18, but crashed to earth at age 23 and never recovered.
As a teenager, McDermott was a golf junkie. His sister Alice said that “He would be on the practice field as soon as it was light, about 5 a.m., and hit shots until 8 a.m. when he opened the pro shop. After his day’s teaching, he would go out and play. Often, he told us, he finished in twilight with somebody holding a lantern.”
His feverish intensity paid off. McDermott provided a glimpse of his potential at the 1910 US Open, in which he lost in a playoff to Scotsman Alex Smith. By 1911, he was confident of a victory, telling his caddie a few days before competition, “You’re carrying the clubs of the next Open champion.” He backed up his boast, winning the 1911 US Open in a tiebreaker in Chicago. He wasn’t done. In 1912, at age 20, he won the US Open again, this time in Buffalo. By this point, McDermott had become the first big golf star in America, endorsing balls and clubs, teaching lessons to teh wealthy, and being paid handsomely to play in numerous exhibitions. But McDermott had a bit of Philly in him, and in the world of golf, that wasn’t considered a good thing.
After losing in a playoff to Alex Smith in 1910, McDermott said to Smith, “I’ll get you next year, you big tramp.” But it was three years later that his smart mouth really got him in trouble, and hastened his downfall.
At a tune up for the US Open in Shawnee in 1913, McDermott smoked two British stars, then mocked them afterwards. “We hope our foreign visitors had a good time, but we don’t think they did, and we are sure they won’t win the National Open.” He was lambasted in the press for his arrogance, and almost kicked out of that years US Open. It also gave the first hint as to his fragile mental state. “I am brokenhearted at the affair,” he told a reporter. “I am worried greatly…near a breakdown.” McDermott was allowed to play at the US Open, but clearly shaken, he finished 8th.
He had made numerous investments with the money he won from the two US Open wins and his lucrative coaching gigs, but in the winter of 1914, his investments all went south. He travelled to England to take part in the 1914 British Open, but missed a train after arriving in England and was unable to play. On his return trip to the US, his ship was in a collision. No-one was hurt, but it didn’t help his delicate mindstate. “Everything had hit within a year,” said his sister Gertrude. “First the stock failure, then the awful results of the Shawnee tournament, then the Open and finally that wreck.”
He finished 9th in the 1914 US Open, and then disappeared from golf for good. He blacked out at a pro shop in Atlantic City and was taken to a mental institution. He was described as being “paranoid, delusional, catatonic, hallucinatory, incoherent, apathetic, silent, retarded, passive, preoccupied, seclusive.” He was diagnosed as a chronic schizophrenic, and after bouncing around a few institutions, he would be put up at the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown in 1916. He was allowed to design and build a golf course on the Hospital grounds, and continued to play for regularly for fun. But he never overcame schizophrenia, a mental disorder not well understood at the time, and despite numerous trips off of the Hospital grounds to play golf at the Atlantic City course or to stay with one of his devoted sisters, he lived there for the rest of his life.
In 1971, the US Open came to nearby Merion, and Johnny decided to attend. McDermott, dressed in strange clothes from an era long since passed, was asked to leave the pro shop. On his way out, he was recognized by Arnold Palmer, who asked him how he was and let it be known that he was welcome in the clubhouse. Two months later, the Philly Phenom who put golf on the map in the United States would die at age 79.
Thanks to reader Mario for pointing this story out to me. If you know any great local sports stories, please don’t hesitate to contact us on facebook and let us know.