A writer calling from Ireland with a research request, alerted us to a forgotten golf celebrity in our parish history!
J.J. would have been about four years old in 1895, when a group of local enthusiasts improvised a nine-hole golf course at the Belmont Cricket Club (then located at 49th and Chester). The first four holes – made from tomato cans — were on the cricket club grounds; the other five were in a field next door, on the other side of an eight-foot fence that determined golfers had to climb! The golfers formed their own Belmont Golf Association in 1896, and, in 1897, the new club moved to 52nd and Chester, where legend said the old barn used as the clubhouse, “had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town.” Little J.J. was fascinated, watching this strange new sport, and made his own golf course in his grandparents’ nearby orchard. At age 9, he “marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they ever had on the premises.” Walter Reynolds, the club professional, took a fancy to the plucky youngster and allowed him in.
J.J. (John Joseph Jr.) MacDermott’s parents, John and Margaret, were married at St. James Parish (today St. Agatha St. James at 38th & Chestnut) on 15 November 1890. J.J. was born nine months later on 12 August 1891 – a year after our parish was founded – and was baptized in our parish that same month. His sisters Alice and Nora Gertrude were baptized here in 1893 and 1895. Their mother is supposed to have sung in the SFDS church choir, although we have no early records to confirm that. Their father was a mail carrier, and, reportedly, very strict. The MacDermotts lived at 1234 South 50th Street. Global Golf Post reports that J.J.’s grandparents, the Smiths, lived “a couple of streets over and a few blocks down.” According to records, they were also active parishioners. Young J.J. often stayed with them.
When J.J.’s father wanted him to leave school in 1906, at age fifteen and begin working in a real trade, J.J. contrarily moved to Camden and took a job as assistant golf pro at the Camden Country Club, before becoming head professional at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill a year later. His career progressed quickly: in 1909, he finished 49th in the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1910, when the U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, he lost by 4. The following year, at Chicago Golf Club, “McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open.” He won again in Buffalo, NY, in 1912 — a rare back-to-back victory.
Sadly, J.J.’s rising star was a supernova. In 1913, in a burst of euphoria after winning the Shawnee Open, J.J., who had always been prone to odd, impulsive behavior, made a strange jarring speech scorning “British invaders” (boasting that Americans finally “owned” the U.S. Open), and then apologized, but his reputation was damaged. He still travelled to Britain for the British Open in June 1914, but he missed a boat, then his train was delayed, so he missed his qualifying tee time for the tournament. Returning across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship and he had to board a lifeboat. Back home, misfortunes crowded upon him when his stock market investments failed. He had a nervous breakdown and moved back home with his parents (and back to the parish), before being committed to a mental hospital in Norristown in 1916. Formally diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1920s, J.J. stayed in the institution until he died in 1971.
The great theatre of world events upstaged J.J. MacDermott’s personal tragedy: World War I began in July 1914—just a month after his fateful British trip. And, as Doug Fraser has observed: “He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away” — though perhaps J.J.’s hour is coming round at last as interest in his remarkable achievements seems to be suddenly renewed!