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The Curious Case of John McDermott

Truth is, the Philadelphian's game could be as manic as his manners. McDermott won the 1911 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club despite hitting his first two tee shots of the playoff out of boudns. Defending his title in 1912, he won by two at the Country Club of Buffalo, but a few months later, in hated Scotland, he couldn't break 90 at Muirfield and failed to even qualify for the Open Championship. (He did far better in 1913, his fifth-place at Hoylake being, at the time, the best-ever finish by an American.) His swagger, however, never flagged. "McDermott expected to win every tournament he entered," golf historian Herbert Warren Wind wrote some four decades later. "For two or three seasons, while his nerve held high, the 130-pound bantam-cock was almost as good as he thought he was."

Nobody really knew, of course, what was coursing through the youngster's troubled mind. McDermott cashed in on his Open wins with endorsements, exhibitions and $1,000 challenge matches, but he squandered his new-found riches in a plummeting stock market. Hoping to recoup at the 1914 British Open, he somehow missed his ferry and train connections to Prestwick, Scotland, arriving too late to qualify. It's fair to say he was already reeling from those setbacks when he boarded the superliner Kaiser Wihelm II for the voyage home. McDermott was in the ship's barbershop when a grain carrier, the Incemore, rammed the fogbound liner off the Isle of Wight.

Panicky passengers fight over acces to a 
starboard lifeboat as crewmen crank the
winches. Evacuation sirens blare. McDermott,
expressionless, leans heavily against a 
shuddering bulkhead. He slides slowly to the
deck, oblivious to the surrounding chaos and
the seawater soaking his trousers.

STEWARD (urgently)
I'll need you to get up, sir. We've been ordered to the boats.
(shaking McDermott's shoulder) Sir? Sir?

Okay, that's from my own, unfinished screenplay, based loosely on James Cameron's Titanic. In reality, neither ship sank, nobody died, and McDermott made it safely onto another liner. His family, though, would partially blame the accident for his deteriorating state of mind.

McDermott had one more Open in him, and he played respectably, finishing in a ninth-place tie at Midlothian Country Club, outside Chicago. Shortly thereafter, he experienced the psychotic episode in Atlantic City, which marked his descent into paranoid schizophrenia and institutional care. "He made no contact with staff or patients," James Finegan writes in A Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia. "Indeed, he rarely spoke. He spent endless hours scribbling unintelligibly in notebooks, claiming he was writing his mother's and father's names."

But McDermott never quit the game. He played on the asylum's six-hole course, and he ventured out for two last cracks at real competition, finishing last in the 1925 Philadelphia Open and next-to-last in that year's Shawnee tournament, 59 strokes behind Willie Macfarlane. For decades thereafter, his sisters Gertrude and Alice signed him out of the asylum for day trips that included rounds of golf or tournament spectating.

"You must play a round with him to get your fill of amazement," said the Philadelphia club pro Elwood Poore. "He's almost a cinch to be using the wrong club, but he's also a cinch for the low 80s. He plays by the rules as he knew them, still drops a ball over his shoulder after an out of bounds shot off the tee." Poore added, "He hardly mentions the old days except when something happens to light up a dim picture." A sudden onslaught of rain, for example, reminded McDermott of a round at Muirfield. "Cold and raw," he told Poore, "and I could not get any feeling of the club."

So no, McDermott didn't quit the game. But neither did the game quit him. In 1924, golfers in New York and New Jersey raised funds for his treatment, with donations from Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, and singer Al Jolson. Years later, Hagen played a round with McDermott on the hospital course, at the end of which the still-young patient said, "Tell the boys I'm getting along just fine."

With the passage of time -- picture calendar pages turning -- McDermott slipped into that gray zone between "Whatever ever happend to?" and "I thought he died years ago." He was deeply moved when the PGA of American, in 1940, selected him as one of its 12 original Hall of Fame inductees. He was happy, too, when the Atlantic City Country Club named a room for him and put one of his championship medlas on display. But it had to hurt when he was snubbed by the "official" Golf Hall of Fame (since morphed into the World Golf Hall of Fame). And there's the story of the confused old man kicked out of the pro shop at a certain PGA Championship because the staff didn't recognize him as a two-time U.S. Open champion.

Well, that's one version of the story. Another widely circulated, takes place at Philadelphia's fabled Merion Golf Club during the 1971 U.S. Open.

Arnold Palmer, on his way to the locker room,
notices a shambling old man being ejected
from the clubhouse lobby. Recognizing the old
man, the 1960 U.S. Open champion intervenes.

But he's just an old bum that's been hangin' around

PALMER (in a kindly manner)
You're wrong. This gentleman is
the oldest living U.S. Open champion,
and he is my special guest.

Palmer has confirmed the spirit, if not the letter, of the story. Accounts agree that McDermott, despite his mental state, beat bogey on Philadelphia-area courses up to his death of heart failure, in 1971, at the age of 79. His gravestone reads: FIRST AMERICAN-BORN GOLF CHAMPION 1911-1912.

I knew none of this when i first viewed The Greatest Game. So I practically howled at the scene where McDermott sits down in the fairway. Are you kidding? The spectators don't come to his aid! They avert their eyes and drift away, embarrassed. And McDermott's caddie stands rigidly by the bag, seemingly blind to his employer's breakdown.

"That's not believalbe," I grumbled. "A champion golfer doesn't suddenly become invisible."

Unless -- and this is what I've come to believe -- he's the champion America wanted to forget.


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