The Curious Case of John McDermott

May 22, 2012

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.

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.