The history of golf’s U.S. Open is filled with many inspirational stories — and one very sad one.
In 1969, then 19-year old Bill Pappa was an assistant pro at a golf club in Pennsylvania when he spotted an elderly, disheveled man hanging around the shop. Pappa, having no idea who he was, showed John McDermott out.
McDermott’s life after becoming the first American-born, and at age 19 the youngest, U.S. Open champion overshadowed his historic but brief career in professional golf. His is a cautionary tale of how life, in short order, can tumble from the top to the bottom.
In 1910, at 18, the Philadelphia-born McDermott finished second in the Open. He came back to win it the next two years, ending a streak of 16 victories by British golfers. For a moment, he was among the best-known golfers in the world. He had seven wins as a pro, but his 1912 victory was his last in a major tournament.
An incident in 1914 has been tied to his downfall. He was scheduled to play in the British Open but arrived late for his tee time. When en route back to the United States, his ship collided with another in the English Channel. While he was not said to have been injured, he blacked out days later in the Atlantic City Country Club.
Reports from the time say McDermott, then 23, had suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent the rest of his life, reports from that time said, confined to psychiatric facilities or living with his family.
McDermott’s sisters often took him to local courses in the Philadelphia area.
Pappa’s club, St. Davids was one of them. He did not recognize McDermott, who was in his late 70s.
“It was my first year in the business, I didn’t know anything about [him],’’ Pappa, 69, said Wednesday from Mays Landing Country Club in New Jersey. “He really didn’t talk, he wore a raincoat and a hat. I thought it was a caddie. I said ‘You got to go get outside.’ So I chased him out.
“My pro [Pete Trenham] came in and he said to me did anything happen. I said some caddy was in, I escorted him out. He said what did he look like. I told them. He said that guy won two U.S. Opens. And I said ‘Yeah and I’m Babe Ruth.’ There’s not a chance anybody on earth would believe that this gentleman won two U.S. Opens. Then I got a job later on at the Atlantic City Country Club and they named rooms after him.’’
Trenham, 81, said McDermott was in the shop many times. “He was in the state mental institution in Norristown, not far away from my course,” Trenham said. “His sisters were wonderful, they never got married and the two of them on weekends would get him and take him around to the different golf courses around Philadelphia. He would go in, say hello to the pro briefly, that would be about it. His sisters would always say ‘Don’t stay too long, don’t bother people.’”
Trenham said McDermott’s mental faculties were impaired. “He said ‘I saw Bobby Jones [the Hall of Famer who retired in 1930] the other day and I think he’s going to be pretty good.’ That just shows you where he was in the mental side of things. I guess you’d say its tragic. With all the medicines we have today, they probably would have something that would have helped him. In those days they just put you in a home.
“He should be in the World Golf Hall of Fame,’’ Trenham added.
McDermott is in the less prestigious PGA of America Hall of Fame, having been inducted in the inaugural class of 1940.
“Dinah Shore and Bob Hope are in it, here’s a guy who won back-to-back U.S. Opens,” Trenham said. “Even though he had a very short career, he’s deserving.’’
Months before his death in 1971 at age 79, McDermott attended the U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. As the story goes, McDermott was ejected from the lobby of the clubhouse with the attendant telling a man, “He’s an old bum that’s been hangin’ around.’’
The man responded, “You’re wrong. This gentleman is the oldest living U.S. Open champion, and he is my special guest.’’
That man, according to golf.com., was Arnold Palmer.