Captives on their own soil as the first 16 U.S. Open tournaments were won by British golfers, the hosts finally triumphed in 1911. Inspiration, of course, was inherent to the victory, which sparked interest on the home front not only because of the achievement’s unexpected nature, but for its youthful champion, 19-year-old John J. McDermott. For his efforts, McDermott was awarded this gentleman’s open face 18-karat gold pocket watch. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than putting a price tag on such a significant heirloom is citing any components that match the parallels between both the manufacturer of this prize and its heroic recipient.
Issued by Philadelphia’s Bailey, Banks & Biddle, the timepiece was crafted in Switzerland, where the movements were secured by a hinged gold leaf with an engraved Madretsch trademark. It is this element that introduces definitive similarities between watchmaker and watch recipient.
The aforementioned trademark is attributed to D. Gruen & Sons. German-born Dietrich Gruen was sent to Switzerland in 1862 at the tender age of 15 to become a watchmaker’s apprentice. He eventually landed in the U.S. and established retail outlets in Ohio, though the movements were made in Switzerland. McDermott, too, became noticeably skilled at his craft and with his 1911 achievement, simultaneously became the first U.S.-born and the youngest golfer (19 years, 10 months, 12 days) to win the U.S. Open. For an encore, McDermott won the 1912 U.S. Open, as well, setting another new standard as the first to break par (294). While subsequent U.S. golfers (namely, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen) went on to gain acclaim as American pioneers on the links, it was McDermott who authored arguably the most significant breakthrough. Unfortunately, financial woes and mental illness plagued McDermott for the rest of his days. This intricately designed timepiece is perhaps the most telling reminder that, though short-lived, the era of McDermott and his crowning victories was quite real.
The three-leaf open face 18-karat gold case are framework for an elegant clock dial with Breguet Arabic hour identifiers, steel spade hands and a subsidiary seconds dial. On the back case covering, “JJMcD” is engraved in ornate cursive. Inside that leaf, the cuvette in engraved with a cursive legend that reads: “Presented to J.J. McDermott Philadelphia’s first open champion (in Chicago 1911) Through the Philadelphia Golf Association by admiring golfers.” The weight of the item is 66.5 grams which is inclusive of machinery.
In summary, this is an incredible relic and vintage survivor painstakingly crafted by skilled artisans and forerunners to the revered “Rolex” manufacturer; and presented to a young man who defined “promise” in putting the U.S. on the map with unprecedented exploits on the links. The piece presents beautifully, and while the timepiece does not run, it can be repaired. We have opted, however, to leave the original mechanisms completely in place and leave the decision to restore to the winning bidder. Accompanying is an appraisal letter from Kripps Jewelers. This item has a reserve (estimated value: $13,000-$25,0000).
Additional information regarding McDermott and the watch are as follows:
The story of this item is as unique as the piece itself. In 1909 Mr. McDermott, then 17 yrs and 10 months old competed in his first US Open, he tied for 49th that year. The following year, in 1910 at 18 yrs and 10 months, he finished second in the US Open. The following year, 1911, was his breakout year; at 19 yrs and 10 months he would go on to win the US Open. Mr. McDermott became the first American born US Open Champion, a feat he would repeat the following year in 1912. In 1913 he would attempt to 'three-peat' and although he was unsuccessful, he did manage to finish 8th that year. In 1913, he would go on to play in his first, (and only) British Open in which he would finish 5th in that event. Mr. McDermott would go on to boast that he would beat the best that England had to offer at that time: Wilfred Reid, Ted Ray, and Harry Vardon. Later that year in the Philadelphia Open Tournament, western open, at Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pennsylvania, his prediction would come true as he won the tournament ahead of the players he boasted he would beat, soundly defeating Ray and Vardon by 14 and 13 strokes respectively. This unfortunately would be the last taste of victory for Mr. McDermott as in 1914 he tied for 9th in the US Open. Mr. McDermott would later attempt to make the British Open that year, and due to travel difficulties, he did not make the appointed time for check in. The officials at the event offered to waive the rule for Mr. McDermott; he declined adding "That it would not be right for the other golfers, if the rules were waived for me." Due to his missing the check in time, and declining to 'bend the rules' he headed home without playing a stroke. On his return trip to the US, onboard the superliner Kaiser Wilhelm II, while in the fog, a grain carrier, the Incemore, rammed the passenger ship off the Isle of Wight. While McDermott was uninjured physically, his mental health was broken. Soon, he experienced a psychotic break in Atlantic City (where he was the club pro) and which became the beginning of his institutional care due to paranoid schizophrenia. In 1940, the PGA of America chose him as one of the "12 original Hall of Fame inductees." Later, the Atlantic City Golf Club would name a room after him and place some of his championship items on display. His friend, (Leo Fraser) that, at the time was the owner of the Atlantic City Golf Club, would pass away. Later, his sons (that now own Mays Landing Golf Club in New Jersey) would be offered $50,000 for a McDermott item, that they turned down. Mr. McDermott lived out his days, for the next 55 years at the Norristown PA asylum. Mr. McDermott would take day trips with his sisters, and all accounts state, that even in his advanced age, with debilitating mental ailments he was still able to finish below bogey on the local Philadelphia courses to the time of his death due to heart failure, in 1971, at 79 yrs old. On his gravestone it simply reads "First American-Born Golf Champion 1911-1912." He died penniless, his sisters taking care of his needs with the institution. Later as his one one sister died, she was buried next to him with a headstone, when the last sister died, there was no one to give her a headstone, to this day, she only has a marker.
There is only one other significant 'story' that I do know of this man. In 1971, a few weeks prior to his death, he went to the US Open in Merion. Disheveled and wearing clothes from the 1920's, the attendant in the Pro Shop threw him out. Arnold Palmer, (the 1960 US Open Champion) recognized him and intervened on his behalf. Mr. Palmer informed the attendant "you know you just kicked a two-time winner of the US Open out of the Pro Shop." The attendant (the Assistant Pro) claimed "he's just an old bum hanging around." Mr. Palmer replied, "you're wrong, this gentleman is the oldest living U.S. Open Champion, and he's my special guest." Palmer then wrapped his arms around Mr. McDermott and asked him "how's your game coming?" Mr. McDermott reportedly said "that his putting was ok, but his long game was off," which caused both men to laugh and agree that all you can do is practice.