Mystery shrouds US Open champ from 100 years ago

BETHESDA, MD. (AP) - Johnny McDermott arrived at the golf course without fanfare _ virtually unnoticed, to be more precise _ dropped off by his sister near the front door.

The assistant golf pro at the Overbrook Golf Club was scheduled to meet McDermott at the door, take him to the course and play nine holes, the way they did every Saturday and Sunday when the weather was good.

“It was him and me and one caddie and that was it,” said the golf pro, Jerry Pisano, who worked at Overbrook, one of the very first country clubs on this side of the Atlantic, situated near the Main Line just outside Philadelphia. “No real conversation to speak of, except maybe a little bit about golf. I was always interested in trying to figure out his past, what happened to him over in Europe, but I never could get any definitive answers.”

Very few could. But before Arnie had an army or Nicklaus had won any of his 18 majors or Tiger turned golf into front-page news, Johnny McDermott set the standard for American golf.

At 19, the diminutive kid from West Philly became the first American to win the U.S. Open in a sport dominated by the British. This year marks the 100th anniversary of McDermott’s groundbreaking win. But even today, a century later, McDermott’s sudden rise and equally quick fall remain a mystery to most.

Within five years of his crowning moment, he was all but gone from professional golf, assigned to a home for mentally ill patients, driven crazy _ legend has it _ by a series of mishaps that cut short a career that could have been for the ages.

More than four decades after McDermott’s decline, Pisano spent the better part of a year playing on weekends with the two-time champion (he also won in 1912), who remains the youngest person to win the U.S. Open. They played hour after hour of golf without really saying a word.

“It was two different worlds,” Pisano said. “He knew his golf. He could talk golf to you _ ‘I cut that one a little, turned that one over.’ Talking about anything other than that, practically, he was not able to do that. It was ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ and that was about it.”

McDermott used old clubs with hickory shafts, a wood-shafted Bobby Jones putter and a double-overlap grip in which only eight fingers touched the club.

He was 5-foot-8, weighed maybe 130 pounds but could swing as hard and hit the ball as far as any of them back in his day. He had what was described as a “wristy” swing, one that would be frowned upon in this day and age, where the players and their swings all seem to come out of a factory. But in an era well before golf coaches and swing gurus and video, McDermott learned his game in the dirt on the practice fields near his home in Philly.

Had the game _ and the hype _ been what it is now, McDermott might have been trumpeted as the leader of “The Next Generation of American Golf.” Instead, he was part of America’s first generation, alongside Walter Hagen and Francis Ouimet, the 1913 U.S. Open winner whose victory is widely credited for giving golf its popular start in the United States.

Hagen and Ouimet went on to long, successful careers.

McDermott’s was all but over by 1916.

It started unraveling three years before. After crushing the greats of the sport _ Brits Alex Smith, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray _ at a U.S. Open tuneup tournament in Shawnee, Pa., McDermott was quoted as saying: “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.”

It was a show of brashness and bravado that fit McDermott’s personality, but he claimed his words had been taken out of context, that he had only been joking. The USGA, shocked by the behavior, considered barring McDermott from the U.S. Open but let him play. But the damage had been done. According to a New York Times account, McDermott “worried greatly over the affair and has almost broken down under the strain.”

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