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A Golf Career Cut Short by Mental Illness: Tragedy of John Mcdermott

A great golfer who suffered a mental illness. Most don't know his name as he was forgotten even though his golf achievements set a record.

John McDermott

John McDermott

Early Life of John McDermott

John was born in Philadelphia in 1891 to John Joseph and Margaret McDermott. He seemed small at 5' 8", never weighing more than 130 pounds. His grandfather had an orchard farm next to the Belmont Golf Club. Intrigued by the game they were playing, he set up a makeshift golf course on his grandfather's farm using tin cans, tree branches, and small apples as he watched the players and began mimicking them as much as he could. His family called him J. J. for short.

John's father insisted he go to work to help out. John passed on the coal mines and steel factories; instead, he got a job at the Camden Country Club. It was here that Tom McNamara helped him hone his golf game. JJ had a unique way of putting with his feet and knees together. Decades later, Bobby Jones would use JJ's putting stance.

His next job was at the Merchantville Country Club in New Jersey as a head golf pro.

John 'JJ' McDermott

John 'JJ' McDermott

John McDermott Career Wins

  • 1910 Philadelphia Open Championship
  • 1911 Philadelphia Open Championship
  • 1911 US Open Championship. He was the first American born to win, only 19!
  • 1912 US Open Championship
  • 1913 Shawnee Championship.

The winner at that time only won $300. A far cry from golf payouts today.

Hall Of Fame Inductions:

  • 1941 Inducted to the PGA Hall Of Fame
  • 2014 Inducted posthumously to the Philadelphia Hall Of Fame
  • 2020 Inducted into the NJSGA Hall Of Fame

Unfortunately, McDermott has NOT been inducted into the World Gold Hall Of Fame, yet he deserves it.

McDermott 1911 Club 1911 US Open Gold Medal

McDermott 1911 Club 1911 US Open Gold Medal

The 1913 Shawnee Invitational

The Shawnee Invitational was to be a prelude to the U.S. Open. Ted Ray and Harry Wardon would come from Great Britain to participate. McDermott won the Invitational by eight shots. In the clubhouse, calls for the winner to make a speech were heard. McDermott stepped up on a chair to make his speech.

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McDermott was known as a bragger, being rude, and with a chip on his shoulder. He began by saying the US Open title wouldn't go back to Great Britain. This didn't go over very well with either Ray or Wardon. Although McDermott apologized, the press, USGA, and others crucified McDermott. The USGA even threatened to rescind his invite to the US Open. But the damage was done and coupled with his tempermental and rude behavior he was dubbed "The Little American Boy."

The 1914 British Open

In 1914 McDermott sailed to Great Britain trying to redeem his loss of character. But, because of missing connections, he missed qualifying. On his return home on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ship collided with the Incemore in the English Channel. Passengers were transferred in lifeboats to shore, and later returned to America on another ship.

This incident seemed to have a serious effect on McDermott. Later as he was entering the Atlantic Country Club he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. It was becoming apparent to his parents and sisters something was seriously wrong with JJ.

A Dark Day For John McDermott

On June 23, 1916, JJ's parents committed him to the State Lunatic Hospital in Norristown, Pa. He was just 24 years old and would remain there for the rest of his life. The diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. He was not dangerous or criminally insane, so that he would be allowed some freedom and visits outside the hospital. His sisters would regularly take him out to golf games or lunch.

In 1971, they decided to take their brother to the US Open. McDermott was going to the clubhouse when security, seeing this little older man dressed rather shabbily, escorted him out.

It just so happened that Arnold Palmer saw what was happening and stepped in. He said to security, "that man is the oldest living U.S. Open champion, and he is my honored guest." What a humanitarian thing for Palmer to do but that is the kind of man Palmer is.

Less than two months later, McDermott died in his sleep. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania. His marker reads "First American Born Golf Champion."

While at the mental hospital, he and Walter Hagan built a miniature golf course on the grounds. Hagan and McDermott were friends throughout his life. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that McDermott was "the First Great American Golfer."

Mental illness was not fully understood in the early 1900s, and perhaps McDermott's disease could account for the obnoxious behavior that seemed to follow him. Thank goodness we can now better understand mental illness problems, and today with advances in medicine, we can better treat them.

Pa. Historical Marker For John McDermott

Pa. Historical Marker For John McDermott

John McDermott Grave Marker

John McDermott Grave Marker

Sources Used


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