Kenny, Kevin. Golf’s Forgotten Hero: The Life of John McDermott. Independently published, 2022. Pp. ix+106. Appendices, Bibliographical references, and Index. $12 paperback.
Reviewed by Erica J. Zonder
In May 2022, tennis player Naomi Osaka returned to play at Roland Garros, where just a year earlier she had withdrawn from the tournament citing mental health reasons. She revealed she had suffered “long bouts of depression” (Close, 2022). Golfer Matthew Wolff took a two-month hiatus from the PGA Tour in 2021 after what were characterized as “brutally difficult” weeks where he didn’t “want to get out of bed.” (Rapaport, 2021). Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the individual all-around at Tokyo 2020 to prioritize her mental health after a case of the “twisties,” saying her mind and body were not in sync (Sanchez, 2022).
These examples shed light on often overlooked, but not new, mental health issues in elite sport. In his book, Golf’s Forgotten Hero: The Life of John McDermott, author Kevin Kenny examines McDermott’s rise to fame as the first American man to win back to back US Golf Opens in 1911 and 1912, and then his fall, largely attributed to mental health struggles which were perhaps exacerbated by backlash to his “outburst” after winning the Shawnee Open in 1913, losing money from poor investments, and a traumatic experience after a ship he was sailing on collided with another in the English Channel in 1914. According to his sister, the 20 hours on the lifeboat “was like the last straw. Everything had hit him within a year and it was all bad” (p. 74). While primarily chronicling the life of McDermott in great detail, Kenny also comments on elite golf at this time, including American “homebreds” being treated as inferior to British golfers, class issues, and the early commercialization of the pro game through endorsements and appearance fees.
The book is divided into six main chapters, McDermott’s “Early Days,” in Chapter One, followed by his significant achievements and setbacks in Chapters Two though Five, and then Chapter Six detailing his spiral and eventual institutionalization. McDermott grew up in Philadelphia in an Irish Catholic home, getting involved in golf through caddying. In 1906, at the age of 15, he was told by his father to leave school and find a trade, as “was the norm” for young men from working class homes, so he chose to become an assistant golf professional at Camden Country Club (p. 8). He would bounce around to different clubs for the next several years, as was the nature of the assistant professional lifestyle (and still is in the present day) until finding a head professional job.
McDermott first played the US Open in 1910 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, where the professionals were given “the privileges of the amateur players” as were the golfing “mores” of the day. Amateurs were seen as superior, due both to economic status and the view that match play was a superior to the “scoring business” of the US Open format (p. 11). McDermott, who was largely unknown at this point, made a playoff against two Scottish brothers. Kenny notes here that sporting goods company Spalding used the occasion to run an ad, “Triple Tie for Spalding Golf Balls,” as all three players used that brand––an early example of commercialism in golf at the time (p. 14). McDermott lost the playoff but earned praise for his golf, thus beginning, according to Kenny, “a brief but glorious era of the homebred caddy who rose to golf’s summit… and started to capture the imagination of the American public” (p. 14). The United States now had someone to “stand up to the immigrant professionals” who had been dominating the game (p. 19). Around this time, and perhaps because of it, President Taft called for more municipal courses to be built (using taxpayer money) for those who couldn’t afford to pay for “costly club privileges” (p. 19).
McDermott won the 1911 and 1912 US Opens, and while Kenny describes the events in detail, he also provides commentary about the mass media of the era––newspapers. While several sang McDermott’s praises, others, like The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, were quick to criticize McDermott’s behavior, calling him “too self-satisfied” (p. 28). His cockiness, or brashness, and remarks in “bad taste” were an ever-present theme when considering McDermott. There were many instances, including the Shawnee Open in 1913, that resulted in fall out, leaving many to later wonder if this behavior was the first signs of schizophrenia, or if the repeated negative publicity after Shawnee (and even before) led to his sister’s aforementioned “last straw” assessment (p. 60). The idea of media pressure contributing to mental health issues remains today, and many felt that McDermott entered a “tailspin” (p. 66). McDermott failed to be competitive at the post-Shawnee 1913 US Open at Brookline, the site of this year’s recently-contested US Open.
That 1913 tournament was best known for the triumph of Frances Ouimet, another caddy turned golfing champion who bested British “invaders,” including British Open Champion Harry Vardon. Ouimet’s victory was turned into a book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and subsequent movie. In contrast, McDermott’s victories are mostly lost to history. By 1914, after the incident on the English Channel, McDermott played less and less, and reports on him “became a little sketchy,” including a possible “nervous breakdown” (p. 76). According to The Seattle Daily, “Falling off in his play has completely demoralised McDermott and made a sick man of him” (p. 76).
He did attempt an “ill judged” and short-lived comeback, and while many hoped his recovery was permanent, it was not to be, and he spent the rest of his days institutionalized. Kenny notes that many of his former golf colleagues, as well as local golfers from the Philadelphia area (who had been previously instrumental in paying his travel fees so he could compete in British Opens), subsidized his care, as the past US Open champion, who worked as a club pro, club designer, had sponsorship deals, and played in money matches and exhibitions, was basically penniless. In the end, Kenny notes that McDermott retained his love for golf, as his sister would often pick him up at the sanitarium so he could play at a local course; by account he “lived in his own world” as his personality remained damaged by the post Shawnee breakdown; and no one at that local course knew who he was. Per Kenny, these three points sum up the life of John McDermott, “He was, almost, a forgotten champion” (p. 95).
Close, D. (May 21, 2022). Naomi Osaka: A year after her sudden withdrawal, four-time tennis grand slam champion partakes in French Open media session. CNN.com. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/21/tennis/naomi-osaka-french-open-media-spt-intl/index.html
Rapaport, D. (August 17, 2021). Matthew Wolff details depths of mental health struggles. Golfdigest.com. Retrieved from https://www.golfdigest.com/story/Matthew-wolff-northern-trust-mental-health
Sanchez, R. (April 15, 2022). Simone Biles Says Dropping Out of the Tokyo Olympics Was Her “Biggest Win.” Harpersbazaar.com. Retrieved from https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a39735021/simone-biles-says-dropping-out-tokyo-olympics-was-biggest-win/
Erica Zonder is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Michigan University. She earned a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Master of Science in Sport Management from Eastern Michigan University. She can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @EricaZonder.