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On the golf course, Montague would bet on anything, even if it involved equipment not usually found in a golf bag. (Bettmann/ Corbis)

Montague the Magnificent

He was a golfing wonder, a dapper strongman and the toast of the Hollywood smart set—then his past caught up with him

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"We were out one night and somehow or another there was an altercation with the driver of another car," Johnny Weissmuller reported. "Seems like he thought Monty should have stopped and let him ahead of us. The guy started cussing and generally harassing us and walked up to the car and kept it up. Monty didn't say anything, he just got out of the car, walked up to the front of the guy's Lincoln, picked it up yea high and let it drop. One of the lights fell off and Monty just walked back to the guy and said, ‘What did you say?' The smart guy almost fainted as we drove off."

Weissmuller was a former Olympic swimming champion, the reigning Tarzan in the movies. Even Tarzan of the Jungle was impressed.

The most storied incident on the Lakeside golf course was the one-hole match Montague staged with Bing Crosby. Already the country's most famous singer, not to mention a top movie star, Crosby was a constant and good golfer. He lived on Toluca Lake, sometimes played 36 holes in a day. Always looking for a match, one more round before sunset, he played against the Lakeside caddies, played against the members, played against Montague.

At the end of one encounter, sharing drinks in the bar, Montague the winner again, Crosby bemoaned his luck. A bad bounce here, a bad lie there had ruined his game. Montague disagreed. He said a turn of luck would not have changed the result of the match. To prove it, he bet he could beat Crosby without even using golf clubs. He said he could beat him with a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake. Crosby jumped at the offer.

Montague went to his car—and maybe Crosby should have suspected something if his opponent just happened to have a baseball bat, shovel and rake in the car—and returned with the implements. He then proceeded to hit a golf ball 350 yards into a sand trap with the baseball bat, shovel the ball to within eight feet of the hole, then get down on all fours and make the putt for a birdie using the rake handle like a pool cue. This beat Crosby's par 4, which was executed with a normal drive, chip and two putts, all with standard clubs.

"That was enough for me," the singer said. "I went back to the clubhouse for a little more conviviality."

The Crosby story was wildfire. The tale was told and retold around Hollywood, exaggerated often, the match stretched to 18 holes in some accounts, the shots made longer and more difficult. The amount of the bet—the two participants always claimed it was five bucks—turned into thousands. Montague was now forever "the man who beat Bing Crosby using a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake."

The stories grew. Birds of all descriptions were now felled from telephone wires at all distances. Weissmuller said he had seen Montague kill a sparrow. George Bancroft was not only stuffed into a locker, but the door was shut and Bancroft had to beg to be released. Montague, it was said, could light a wooden match with a golf club, the match placed in the teeth of a caddie lying on a tee. Montague could hit carom shots off oak trees, the ball landing on the green. Montague could do anything. George Von Elm, the 1926 U.S. Amateur champion, called him "the greatest golfer I ever saw."

The strange part of all this was that the man in question did little to encourage it. He was shy, almost secretive. In a town where fame was a career goal, he wanted no part of it.

He refused to enter any tournaments other than club championships. He rejected all offers to turn pro, to take on the famous names like Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen. He didn't play for championships, only for "other reasons"—for fun.

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