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The Curious Case of John McDermott

John J. McDermott
USGA Archives
John J. McDermott won back-to-back to U.S. Opens ... then essentially vanished from the game.

Every golf movie seems to have a "you-gotta-be-kidding-me" moment that spoils it for real golfers. In Tin Cup it's the scene where driving-range pro Roy McAvoy straps on so many swing aids that he looks like a one-man band. In Bagger Vance it's the scene where amateur golfer Rannulph Junuh wanders into the woods for a prolonged chitchat with his girlfriend while Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and thousands of spectators wait patiently in the fairway, staring at the clouds.

The Greatest Game Ever Played has such a scene. It's the moment in the final round of the 1913 U.S. open at Brookline where the camera jumps to an unspecified fairway, where two-time defending champion John J. McDermott addresses the ball. A tall, intense man with a sandy mustache and an unruly shock of blond hair, McDermott nearly snaps his suspenders when he swings, but his face registers shock and dismay as the ball peels off in a 90-degree slice and disappears into dense foilage. Like a villain skewered in a Hollywood sword fight, McDermott drops his club behind him and freezes for a moment -- legs buckling, arms hanging limp -- before finally sagging to the ground, a broken man.

That's the point in the film where I punched the pause button. "Two thumbs down!" I said dismissively. "I mean, who writes this stuff?"

So you can imagine my chagrin when I learned recently that movie's golfer-goes-mad scene was genuine.

Genuine, I say, as distinct from accurate. John McDermott did not, in fact, suffer a mental breakdown on the eve of amateur Francis Ouimet's historic playoff victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Playing for a large and supportive gallery, the 22-year-old McDermott completed his rain-plagued round without incident and finished at 308, good for 8th place and a $50 check. Furthermore, he looked nothing like Michael Weaver, the actor who played him in the 2005 movie. The real McDermott was short, slight, and clean-shaven, with soft, brown hair combed across a broad forehead.

But you have to grant filmmakers their creative license. McDermott, an abrasive and combative man notorious for his club-throwing rages, actually had his breakdown some 13 months later in his pro shop at the Atlantic City Country Club, and it wasn't until the summer of 1916 that he was committed to the Pennsylvania State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pa., where he would reside for the better part of 55 years. If anything, the screenplay's portrayal of McDermott shows restraint, given that the America's preeminent pro golfer of the era suffered financial ruin and survived a shipwreck in the English Chanel within a year of Ouimet's triumph.

What's astonishing is the historical vanishing act performed by McDermott, who still holds the record for youngest player to win a U.S. Open (19 years, 10 months, 12 days.) The son of a West Philadelphia mailman, he caddied at Aronimink Golf Club and learned to play on a sandlot course in an adjoining apple orchard. Dropping out of high school in defiance of his father -- shades of Ouimet! -- McDermott apprenticed with Aronimink pro Walter Reynolds and worked at clubs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey while honing his game. A prodigy, he was only 18 when he won the Philadelphia Open by a stroke over four-time U.S. Open champion Willie Anderson, a transplanted Scot. A few weeks later, McDermott narrowly lost the 1910 U.S. Open to Carnoustie-born Alex Smith in a three-man, 18-hole playoff, making a strong impression with his accurate iron play and an even stronger impression with his parting gibe at Smith: "I'll get you next year, you big lout!"

Did I mention that McDermott was famously rude and bigoted? Mark Frost, who wrote both the screenplay for The Greatest Game and the bestseller upon which it was based, characterized him as a "rough, half-crazed professional whom people crossed the street to avoid." McDermott's general dislike of foreigners came to a boil when he encountered British accents -- which was pretty much every day, since English and Scottish pros held most of the prestigious club jobs and ruled the tournament circuit, winning the first 16 U.S. Opens. In the movie, a smiling McDermott stands protectively by the Open trophy while delivering a welcoming speech to Vardon and Ray, whom he calls "the great English champions."

McDERMOTT (easily)
As the only born American to ever win
this cup, I'd like to say welcome. We hope
you boys have a nice time here in Boston.
(expression hardens)
But personally, I don't think you will. I don't
care if you whipped every single one of us
the last six weeks, I'm sick and tired of people
sayin' all you have to do to win is show up!
(pointing finger at Vardon)
This time you're not taking our
damn cup back!

I'm no film critic, but I didn't buy that Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation any more than I believed the falling-to-the-turf scene. Not, that is, until I burrowed into century-old newspapers and read contemporaneous accounts of McDermott's ugly outburst. The movie fibs by placing the incident at Brookline -- it actually occurred a couple of weeks earlier at the Shawnee-on-Delaware Open, where the boastful Yank had won by a mile, beating Vardon by 13 strokes and Ray by 14 -- but the dialogue and stage directions ring true. History records that USGA President Robert Watson, after publicly apologizing for McDermott's "extreme discourtesy," came close to banning the troubled pro from the Brookline Open.

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