John J. “Johnny” “Jack” McDermott attempted a comeback in 1924!

John J. “Johnny” “Jack” McDermott attempted a comeback in 1924!

In 1911, at only 19, Philadelphia’s Johnny McDermott won the U.S. Open, and then won it again in 1912, only to suffer a mental breakdown in late 1914. There was a great deal of speculation concerning what might have been the cause.

McDermott & trophy (TT) 2

The great British professionals, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, were in the states for the 1913 US Open. A few weeks before the US Open, with Vardon and Ray in the field, McDermott won the Shawnee Open by eight strokes. During a speech he was asked to make, McDermott stated that the people of this country needn’t worry or fear as to the US Open cup going to the other side. He was told that he had insulted the visitors, so he went to them and apologized. A.W. Tillinghast, the designer of the Shawnee course and the club’s golf chairman, asked the golf writers not to mention the speech. All agreed, but then one ran an article about what McDermott had said. It turned into a torrent of criticism.

The USGA threatened to bar him from the US Open. A week later Philadelphia’s Public Ledger newspaper published a rebuttal for McDermott explaining what he had been trying to say, and what he had meant with his words, but it was too late to calm the storm.  

In spite of the uproar McDermott played in the US Open, finishing a disappointing 8th, four strokes out of a tie for first. He had difficulty adjusting to the wet golf course. McDermott liked to play a low approach shot that would hop twice and stop. With the wet greens his shots kept coming up well short of the hole. Francis Quimet, a young amateur from the USA, defeated Vardon and Ray for the title in an 18-hole playoff.

In October McDermott got back on the winning track winning the Western Open at the Memphis Country Club by seven strokes.

He finished second at the North and South Open at Pinehurst in March 1914, and then was off to the British Open in June for a third time. He had tied for fifth in 1913. Somehow he missed a ferry and a train and was late for his starting time to qualify for the tournament. The tournament officials said he could play, but McDermott declined, saying it would be unfair to the other players.

He headed home, boarding the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Soon after leaving port in heavy fog, the ship was struck by a grain freighter. The life boats were lowered but not needed, as the ship made it back to shore. McDermott sailed for home on another ship.

Back in the states McDermott did not attempt to defend his title in either the Shawnee or Western Opens, or play in the Met Open. At the US Open in August he tied for 9th and then a month later he tied for 7th at the Philadelphia Open. He seemed to have lost his usual fiery confidence.  

In October he collapsed in the pro shop at Atlantic City Country Club where he was the professional. His parents came and took him home to West Philadelphia. One of McDermott’s sisters said that everything seemed to happen to him in less than a year; the Shawnee speech, the British Open, the ship wreck and losses in the stock market.

8 J. McDermott (2)

In and out of mental hospitals, McDermott played in just one tournament in 1915, the Met Open on Staten Island. At the end of the first day he was in third place with 145 strokes. On the second day he seemed to tire, shooting a 79-81. His 305 total left him tied for 15th.   

With his father being a mailman the family was unable to afford private hospitals. McDermott was committed to the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, PA in 1916, less than two months before his 25th birthday. The hospital had a 1,232 yard golf course that McDermott could play. Though a state hospital, his family had to pay $1.75 a week for his care.

Exhibitions were played to assist the family with McDermott’s expenses. Walter Hagen, Jim Barnes, Johnny Farrell and Joe Kirkwood, Sr. played a 36-hole exhibition at Merion GC in October 1922. The professionals received no remuneration and paid their own expenses.

A year later in October, Hagen was at Gulph Mills GC playing a 36-hole exhibition. On hearing where McDermott was, Hagen had someone drive him there after golf at Gulph Mills. He played the hospital course with McDermott that day. Hagen reported that McDermott had lost little of his old prowess.    

In mid December 1923, Zimmer Platt (brother of Caddy Scholarship J. Wood Platt) and McDermott played an exhibition match against two professionals at Whitemarsh Valley CC. In spite of winter conditions McDermott refused to improve his lie at any time. On the 14th hole McDermott put his greenside bunker shot two inches from the hole to close out the match. McDermott was three over par for the 14 holes.   

In the summer of 1925 McDermott attempted a comeback. He played in four tournaments; Shawnee Open, Philadelphia PGA Championship, Philadelphia Open and Pennsylvania Open.  Though he hadn’t won a tournament in 12 years he usually attracted a gallery. His scores were in the 80s and he was never in contention. 

After that his golf was relegated to playing with various Philadelphia professionals. On August 1, 1971, one day after playing nine holes at Valley Forge GC, Johnny McDermott died of heart failure, 11 days before his 80th birthday.  

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