June 16, 2009

The Forgotten US Open Hero; For Shame, USGA

In 1971, the US Open was being played at Merion Cricket Club outside of Philadelphia, and an old man, dressed in an old rumpled suit and led by hospital attendants was ordered out of the clubhouse and told not to go near the locker room or the players. Course officials even considered throwing him off of the property for trespassing, but that never came to pass. Heartbroken, he was about to leave and to return to his rest home -- forgotten and near death at 79 years old.

Fortuitously at the same time, Arnold Palmer was walking to the first tee. He recognized the old man, and immediately put his arm around him. Palmer, a Pennsylvanian, instantly knew he was, and began talking to him with deference.

The old man's name was Johnny McDermott, and he was the first US-born US Open champion -- in fact, McDermott won the event twice: in 1911 and 1912.

"How’s your game these days?" Palmer asked him.

"I’m hitting the ball good," McDermott said, "but my putting is not what it should be."

Palmer replied kindly, "I know exactly what you mean." He smiled admiringly and added, "the only thing we can do is keep practicing."

Palmer, then as ever the gentleman, arranged for McDermott to remain at the tournament as his special guest with all of the privileges of a player in the event, something that the old man relished and said that he enjoyed every moment of.

Not long after that US Open, on August 1, 1971, Johnny McDermott died quietly in his sleep. He was eleven days shy of his eightieth birthday. The Philadelphia Inquirer noting his passing simply reported "Yeadon Man Dies, Won Open."

One must wonder how the USGA and too many others overlooked him then, and quite frankly overlooks McDermott and his golfing accomplishments to this day. Not too many players ever won a US Open, much less two. Sam Snead failed to capture the national championship, for example. Yet he is far more exalted in Far Hills, NJ USGA Museum than is McDermott.

At the 1911 U.S. Open in Chicago won a three-way playoff by two strokes and became not only the first American-born champion in the event, but also at nineteen, the youngest. McDermott would win again in 1912, which of course led to the infamous 1913 event at Brookline where former caddy Ouimet defeated two legends, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Those three US Opens contributed greatly to the game's popularity in the US.

Of McDermott, Robert Sommers wrote in his book "The U.S. Open: Golf’s Ultimate Challenge" that he "ended the domination of immigrant British golfers, and was leading a wave of young homebreds…who were to revolutionize the way the game was played."

Indeed, McDermott as the first American player to win the American title led the tidal wave to come of great American golfers. Ouimet helped put golf into the American conscious to stay in 1913. Not many years later, Walter Hagen won the US Open and the British Open, and with Hagen, the uninterrupted era of American players dominating the upper reaches of the game began in earnest. But few people remember McDermott, and that is a travesty.

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