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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

The man who called himself John Montague seemed to appear out of nowhere, simply popping up at the first tee of the public golf courses around Hollywood, California, in the early 1930s. He was a squat and powerful character, somewhere in his late 20s, and he came armed with a pleasant disposition, good looks and a curious set of oversize clubs that featured a driver that weighed nearly twice as much as normal, a monster of a club with a huge head that sent golf balls well over 300 yards down the fairways.

Or at least it did for him. He knew how to make that driver work.

"My brother Bob first met Montague when he was playing out at Sunset Fields," Bud McCray, a local golfer of note, once said, describing his first sighting of the new arrival. "There is a dogleg where the city of Beverly Hills turns into the city of Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard, and at two in the morning, Montague used to stand there and hit golf balls down Wilshire Boulevard."

There was a touch of unreality, a mystery about him from the start. He wasn't one of those casualties from the first stages of what would become the Great Depression, wandering into town battered and bankrupt, following a last-chance dream of palm trees and prosperity. He wasn't part of the perpetual stream of tap-dancers and cowboys and lounge singers hoping to find celluloid stardom on the back lots of the movie studios. He was a golfer. He wanted to play golf.

Where did he come from?

He never said.

What did he do for a living?

He never said.

He just wanted to play golf.

Far from indigent, he dressed well, drove fast cars and within a few months was breaking course records. No one ever had seen a man attack this game, this sport, quite the way he did. His long drives set up easy approach shots, which set up birdie putts, which he made more often than he missed. He could sculpt shots around trees or over buildings, step on a ball in the sand, bury it, then blast it out to the desired location. He was a golfing wonder.

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