Museum Moment: When the Cheering Stopped: The Tragedy of John J. McDermott

Jan 06, 2011

By Rhonda Glenn

John J. McDermott’s last great moment came when cheering fans boosted him onto a chair after he won the 1913 Shawnee Open.

“Speech!” they cried. “Speech!”

The young American, just 22, addressed his friends and the British rivals he had beaten that day. At that moment, his life started to fall apart. Within three years, Johnny McDermott would be condemned to a state insane asylum, a broken man.

McDermott was a two-time U.S. Open champion, the youngest ever and the first American to win. But there is redemption in his tragic fall, and it came from the tough, hardened men who founded the PGA of America, men whose compassion gave McDermott lingering moments of grace.

“The real story of Johnny McDermott that has never been fully told is how and why he went insane,” said PGA professional Martin T. Kavanaugh II, former curator and now a consultant for the PGA Museum of Golf in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

McDermott’s tragedy inspired a brotherhood of golf professionals to reveal tender depths. The strutting Gene Sarazen, the imperial Walter Hagen and younger professionals such as Jack Burke Jr. and Arnold Palmer were there for Johnny. And ever-present, steady as a rock, was a class act named Leo Fraser.

If you run down the list of winners on the U.S. Open Trophy, no American appears until 1911, when McDermott’s name was first inscribed. At 19 years, 10 months, he still stands as the youngest winner in history. When he won for the second time in 1912, McDermott was on top of the world. Two years later, his life crashed.

Born Aug. 12, 1891, in West Philadelphia, John Joseph McDermott Jr. was the only son of Margaret and John Joseph McDermott Sr., a mailman. At about the age of 9, he became a caddie at Aronimink Golf Club and golf became his life.

Even as a youngster McDermott had a difficult personality. A small guy, he was brash and the other caddies tagged him as a bully. He could be reclusive. He often played with another schoolboy, Morrie Talman, on a practice area he had laid out with a few tin cups in an orchard near Aronimink. If another caddie arrived, McDermott would leave.

McDermott dropped out of high school in his sophomore year to turn professional, then worked at Camden County (N.J.) Country Club and Merchantville Golf Club in Cherry Hill, N.J. He had good manners, didn’t drink or smoke and seldom missed Sunday Mass. He impressed enough people to win the professional’s position at Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club. There he worked hard to become a good player. His sister Alice remembered that Johnny lived near the club. “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.”

International players had dominated the U.S. Open since its inception in 1895, which stuck in the craw of many Americans. One day in 1911, McDermott brashly told players at the Atlantic City club, “The foreigners are through.” After making similar remarks another afternoon, he turned to a young man helping him with his equipment and said, “You’re carrying the clubs of the next Open champion.”

McDermott fulfilled his own nervy prophesy. At the 1911 U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club, he beat Mike Brady and George Simpson in a three-way playoff and became the first homebred champion. In 1912 at the Country Club of Buffalo, he won the U.S. Open for the second straight time and was hailed as an American hero.

“To our off-side way of thinking,” Grantland Rice wrote, “John was the greatest golfer America has ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness and all-around skill from the tee to the green.”

McDermott took fifth at the 1913 British Open, the first American to vault into the British echelon. Johnny was at the top of his game. He had a club endorsement deal and earned as much as $100 playing with wealthy visitors at Florida resorts. He won more tournaments in 1913, including the Western Open and Philadelphia Open, and his future looked strong.

Then McDermott’s life fell apart. Not long after he returned from the British Open, he discovered his investments had gone sour, a fact he hid from his family. Then came the fateful episode at the Shawnee Open. McDermott had soundly beaten British players Alex Smith and the revered Harry Vardon that day. Stories differ about his remarks when he stood on that chair to make his victory speech, but the New York papers reported that McDermott said, “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.”

Listeners were aghast. The remark was terribly rude, especially considering that Johnny had been treated so well in Great Britain. The New York and British newspapers had a field day. McDermott was mortified at the reaction in the press. He claimed he was misquoted and issued clarifying statements to try to patch up the hard feelings.

Golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast later said the Englishmen accepted McDermott’s apology, “because they realized Johnny was flush with victory, young and comparatively uneducated.”

At least one reporter wouldn’t let it go and there was bitterness on both sides of the pond. McDermott was nearly inconsolable. He began to brood.

Adrift

Johnny entered the 1914 British Open, but travel mishaps caused him to arrive late and miss his starting time. When officials offered him a later time, he refused, saying it would be unfair to the other players. He booked passage home on the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm II for June 17.

Sailing down the fog-shrouded English Channel, McDermott was sitting in the ship’s barbershop when a loud “Boom!” shook the liner. The ship shuddered and lurched, and McDermott joined other passengers scrambling into the lifeboats. A British grain carrier had ripped a huge tear in the ship’s hull and the Kaiser Wilhelm limped into port, but McDermott drifted in the channel for nearly 20 hours before he was rescued.

Years later, his sister Gertrude told writer Joe Schwendeman of Golf Journal, “It was like the last straw. Everything had hit him within a year, and it was all bad.”

In October, Johnny blacked out as he walked into the Atlantic City golf shop. His parents were notified, and they picked him up and took him home. McDermott formally resigned on Dec. 1, 1914.

Four days later a newspaper article announced “McDermott Retires from Seashore Job. Noted Golfer Leaves Atlantic City Country Club – Sticks are Sent Home. Friends say McDermott will quit the game for awhile.”

His family despaired. McDermott’s life became a series of rest homes and homes for the mentally ill. On June 23, 1916, he was formally committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Norristown, Pa. “In the Matter of John J. McDermott, A Lunatic,” said the certificate. His mother was ordered to pay the city $1.75 a week for his support.

Johnny had been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. It was a mysterious disease and hadn’t even been given a name until 1911 when Eugene Beuler first used the term to define blunted emotions, disordered thoughts and the loss of awareness. Johnny was 23.

What caused this young man, so self-possessed that he withstood the pressure of international competitive golf, to contact schizophrenia? Studies say the disease is influenced by genetics, but genetics alone aren’t the root cause. Certain drugs can trigger symptoms, but it’s never been indicated that Johnny took drugs. Prenatal complications such as a mother’s malnutrition or influenza increases risk, but in McDermott’s case it’s impossible to know if those factors existed. Other studies offer a clue. Stress was believed to trigger schizophrenia in people whose genetics made them susceptible to the illness. Ending relationships and even leaving home have been linked to its onset. McDermott had suffered three great calamities in 1914, losing his money, suffering public humiliation and surviving a shipwreck.

“Split personality” is often misapplied to describe schizophrenia. Nor does the disease make a victim violent, unless he is predisposed to violence, studies show. Johnny was a gentle soul, but in the throes of his illness he was variously labeled in hospital reports as paranoid, catatonic, hallucinatory and incoherent. Today the disease is most often treated with medications that can nearly mask its symptoms and help patients lead near normal lives. No such treatments existed years ago.

Johnny’s devoted sisters, Gertrude and Alice, dealt with it as well as they could. The challenge was to accept him as he was at the time, and not dwell on what he once had been. As he grew older he had cogent moments when he almost seemed like the old Johnny. Gertrude and Alice took him on short trips out of the asylum to play a little golf or attend tournaments around the Philadelphia area. They could shave him and trim his hair, give him nice clothes and a shoe shine and make every effort to make him appear normal, but he would never be the same. The light in his mind that had lit his path to fame had gone out.

Band of Brothers

Pro golf was a hardscrabble existence in those days. There were few tournaments and these tough men probably won more money shooting dice than playing golf. Gene Sarazen, the son of a carpenter, who had flash and dash and all the confidence in the world, and the elegant Walter Hagen, who would pull almost any trick to win, were becoming popular. Jack Burke was a good player out of the Philadelphia area and part of the supporting cast. Most of these fledgling American professionals learned golf’s rudiments in the caddie yards. Many made clubs. Some gave lessons, and then battled in the scattered events.

They were quick studies, these men, learning good manners and how to dress from the club members who envied their golf skill, but for the most part they were rough. The “Golden Age of Sport” may have featured polished athletes like Bob Jones, but he was far outnumbered by scrappers like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, guys from tough backgrounds who slid into bases with their spikes high.

United in trying to claw their way to a better life through golf, professionals had great camaraderie born of shared lean times and the bonds of golf, a game that fosters good will. Anyway, the fellows all knew McDermott and his illness tore them up. Many of these rough pros had been boys when Johnny became the first American to win the U.S. Open and they heard of his victory and were inspired. If Johnny McDermott, son of a mailman, could beat the world, so could they. Like them, he was up from the caddie yards, a working-class guy, and yet, unlike them, he had caught a very bad break.

On June 26, 1916, just three days after Johnny was committed to the asylum, 39 men assembled at the Hotel Radisson in Minneapolis for the first meeting of the Professional Golfers Association of America. Hand-written notes at the PGA’s Museum of Golf, say their very first action was to help their afflicted friend. “A subscription is taken up for J. McDermott who was reported as permanently sick.”

In January 1917 at the PGA’s annual meeting, Harrison Townsend of Aronimink thanked PGA members for a $50 subscription to a fund to help McDermott. The pros played in a 1922 pro-am in Philadelphia to raise money for his care. Another pro-am in 1924 raised more funds. New York area pros raised $1,500 at yet another benefit, including $100 donations from Sarazen, Hagen and Joe Kirkwood.

Over the years Sarazen visited Johnny in the asylum. The Haig, after playing an exhibition match to benefit McDermott, also drove down to visit him at Norristown. A rough six-hole course had been constructed on the grounds and Hagen took the afflicted champion out to play the little course. McDermott told the great campaigner, “I don’t think I ever saw a more beautiful view than from here. Tell the boys I’m getting along just fine.”

Jerry Pisano, an assistant at Overbrook Golf Club in Philadelphia during those years, told writer Bill Fields for his fine story on McDermott on ESPN.com that in the 1950s it was part of his job to play nine holes with Johnny when Gertrude and Alice brought him to visit the club.

“He was an old man, kind of scrawny looking,” Pisano said, “but he stayed right up with me, give or take a club. He could drive the ball 225 yards. No matter how goofy he looked or how goofy he sounded, he played golf. … I’d start conversations with him and he’d carry conversations with me but abruptly fade out.”

Just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and never more than 135 pounds during his playing days, McDermott was now a sad little figure who didn’t quite fit in. Staff members at one famous club kicked him out of the pro shop because he didn’t look as if he belonged. Fortunately, it was the only known occasion. Golf is a very small world and players mostly regard their champions with respect. When Johnny’s sisters took him to golf courses in the area, he was taken in.

One key benefactor was the late Leo Fraser. Fraser was born in 1910, the year before McDermott won his first U.S. Open. While Fraser of course hadn’t known Johnny then, he knew him now and for Fraser, that was enough. Leo was fresh from action in World War II, where he won the Bronze Star and five battle stars in the North Africa campaign. He and his brother Sonny and some associates bought Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, N.J. Leo lived the game. His father James Fraser, a professional, was killed in a car accident when Leo was just 13 and the boy found his salvation in golf.

“I don’t think my dad was ever an amateur,” said Leo’s son, Jim Fraser, who is also a PGA member. “He turned pro when he was about 14.”

Fraser was a friendly, thoughtful man and when he bought the Atlantic City club, he let it be known that Johnny would be welcomed there. He named a room in the clubhouse the John J. McDermott Room and encouraged his fellow professionals to take care of their brethren.

“McDermott’s sisters would take him to tournaments and the pros from the Philadelphia section just took care of him,” said Jim Fraser. “They made sure to have lunch with him or dinner with him. It wasn’t just my dad. They recognized his history and took care of him.”

“He was very revered around our house, that’s for sure,” recalls Jim Fraser. “He was in our home many times. He always had a golf club in his hands, even when he was in a wheelchair near the end.”

When the PGA Tour came to Philadelphia, Gertrude and Alice took Johnny to the tournament to watch from the sidelines. Jack Burke Jr., another son of a golf professional, remembers him well.

“My dad knew him and they played some,” Burke said. “I remember Dad telling me about him and about his mental illness. When we played at Philadelphia they’d bring him out. Sometimes he’d be in my gallery and I’d go talk to him and we’d talk about my dad.”

Once Johnny stood behind the gallery ropes in Philadelphia to watch Arnold Palmer. Palmer recognized the small man in the rumpled suit, walked over to the ropes and draped his arm around his shoulders.

“How are you, John?” Palmer asked. When McDermott said his putting wasn’t very good, Palmer listened, then smiled and said, “We all need to practice our putting, don’t we?” and then went on his way.

McDermott died on Aug. 1, 1971, a couple of months after watching the U.S. Open at Merion and 11 days shy of his 80th birthday. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeardon, Pa., in a graveyard well populated by famous men – ballplayers, congressmen, figures from organized crime. His sisters, Alice and Gertrude, are buried nearby.

When Leo Fraser died in 1986, his children went through his possessions, which included the gold medal John McDermott won at the 1911 U.S. Open. A few years before, McDermott’s sisters had presented it to Fraser’s club for the many kindnesses shown to John there. The children had the medal appraised. It was valued at a little more than $40,000.

“We wouldn’t sell it. We gave it to the USGA Museum,” Jim Fraser said. “The medal belongs to golf.”

It is often said that winning a USGA championship means the winner is revered as a champion for the rest of his life. For John J. McDermott, who twice reached such heights only to tumble so far, it was certainly true.

Rhonda Glenn is a USGA manager of communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

John McDermott was a two-time U.S. Open champion, the youngest ever and the first American to win. (USGA Museum)


At the 1911 U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club, McDermott beat Great Britain’s Mike Brady and George Simpson in a three-way playoff and became the first homebred champion. (USGA Museum)