John McDermott’s life is the stuff of a movie script.
A golf prodigy who dropped out of high school to turn pro, McDermott acquired wealth and fame as a teenager — think of Tiger Woods, 85 years before Tiger Woods — during his brief reign as America’s best golfer.
Socially awkward and yet supremely confident, McDermott invested his earnings from tournaments and exhibitions that surely included lucrative side bets. And then, by the time he turned 25, he lost everything: His money, his skill, his will, his ability to communicate whatever scrambled thoughts were in his mind, all lost to schizophrenia, an illness few doctors knew how to diagnose in 1916, much less treat.
The saga of McDermott’s descent from golf wizard to insane asylum resident might seem to have big-screen potential, but the movie won’t be made because this is a story with no definitive conclusion. Despite the horrible circumstances that robbed him of his talent, McDermott eventually was released from the asylum and lived in peace, more or less, until the age of 79.
A few months before his 1971 death, McDermott got escorted out of a pro shop. Perhaps his attire wasn’t deemed appropriate, or he was behaving suspiciously. In any case, nobody in the pro shop recognized the harmless old man who once was, in the words of Grantland Rice, “the greatest golfer America had ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness, and all-around skill from tee to green.”
Rice was prone to overstate what readers couldn’t verify on television, but the assessment of McDermott was not an exaggeration. After his 1911 U.S. Open victory historic on two fronts — he became the first American to win the tournament, and its youngest champion to date — McDermott repeated in 1912.
By 1913, McDermott was on top of the world when three unrelated events led to the stress likely responsible for his mental breakdown.
His stocks crashed, wiping out his savings.
Nothing if not brash, McDermott then gloated over beating his veteran counterparts from Great Britain — Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — in the prestigious Shawnee-on-Delaware Open, outside Philadelphia.
“We hope our foreign visitors had a good time, but we don’t think they did,” New York newspapers reported McDermott as saying. “We’re all sure they won’t win in the next National Open.”
McDermott’s remarks appear tame when compared with the Twitter messages pro athletes exchange with each other these days, but in 1913, the remarks were regarded as, well, uncivilized. McDermott went into a damage-control mode and insisted he was misquoted, but to no avail. The “outburst” haunted him as he prepared for the disaster that awaited at the 1914 British Open.
Arriving late due to a travel mix-up, McDermott decided to drop out of the tournament rather than inconvenience his fellow players by accepting an offer for a rearranged tee time. For his trip back to the States, McDermott booked passage on the Kaiser Wilhelm II. He was on a barber’s chair when the cruise ship collided with a freighter in the English Channel.
Although McDermott had access to a lifeboat and was rescued, the experience — two years after the Titantic — had to be traumatizing.
“It was the last straw,” McDermott’s sister would recall. “Everything had hit him within a year, and it was all bad.”
In October, McDermott blacked out in the golf shop where he served as a club pro, and he resigned in December. A year and a half later, the Pennsylvania State Hospital for the Insane admitted him as a patient.
Medications are prescribed nowadays that substantially reduce the debilitating affects of mental illness. Those medications were not available to McDermott, determined to be schizophrenic only five years after Swiss behavioral scientist Eugen Bleuler identified the condition.
And so he endured, maybe or maybe not realizing that the first priority of the first formal meeting of the PGA, at Minneapolis in 1916, was to arrange a charity fund for U.S. golf’s original superstar.
During the decade between 1910 and 1920, Great Britain began to relinquish its death-grip dominance of the sport to some new kids on another continent. McDermott was the most precocious of the new kids.
The only son of a Philadelphia mailman, he paved the way for the likes of Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson: Hardscrabble American kids denied the privilege of taking private lessons at a country club and going off to college, they honed their games as caddies, golf’s equivalent of gym rats.
McDermott spoke not so softly as he carried a big stick, and while his insouciant self-esteem was as American as apple pie, that’s not his legacy.
His legacy is that he was born too soon to benefit from advancements made in the ever-complex science of mental health, too soon to be recalled as a caddie-to-trophy-holding trailblazer.
McDermott won his second consecutive U.S. Open in 1912, a year before Francis Ouimet’s improbable Open victory in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
They made a movie about that one.