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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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Within four hours, he believed them all. Montague's drives were the longest Rice ever had seen. The chips, the putts were almost perfect. Stepping onto the 18th tee, Montague needed only a par to shoot 61, which would set the Riviera course record. He then did the strangest thing. He purposely hit a ball deep into the woods, told the caddie to pick it up and retired for the day.

Why'd you do that? Rice asked. You would have had the record.

I don't want the notoriety, the golfer explained.

The sportswriter had never seen anything like it. He left the course amazed. He had the thought, crazy as it seemed, that he had played a round with the best golfer in the world. Could that be? Could the best golfer in the world be someone who had never played in a tournament, someone unknown to the sports public, someone unknown even to Grantland Rice? He had to play with this guy again. And again. And again. And he did. And the feeling would not leave him.

John Montague was the best golfer in the world! Rice sat on his opinion for as long as he could, then did the only thing he could do. He was a sportswriter. He started writing.

"I have played several rounds with John Montagu in California and I'll take him as an even bet against any golfer you can name—over a championship course," Rice wrote in his column of January 18, 1935, misspelling Montague's name. "In the first place, he is around 30 years old. He is 5 feet, 10 inches in height and weighs 205 pounds. His physical power is amazing; a strength that is combined with litheness and muscle looseness. He is built like [wrestler] Jim Londos and is just about as strong.

"I played with him at Lakeside, Riviera and other hard courses around Los Angeles and he handled most of the long par-4 holes, from 430 to 450 yards, with a drive and a niblick [9-iron] over soft fairways. He has the grip of doom in his hands, which are like active steel. He has the ability to concentrate with a keen, alert mind.

"He would be murder in an amateur championship—here or in Great Britain—and a distinct threat in any open."

The door to the outside world had been quietly unlocked. No great rush at John Montague came through, but his name and deeds were now on the public record. Like it or not, the process of scraping away his anonymity had begun. Rice wrote about him again before the year was out, claiming that the U.S. Amateur champion of 1936, whoever it was, would not be the best amateur in the country because John Montague was not entered.

Westbrook Pegler, a friend of Rice's, added a second, more dramatic voice. He brought the wonder story about the match with Crosby onto the printed page in September 1936. A former sportswriter, now a syndicated columnist with a brash and conservative voice, Pegler was enthralled by the mystery more than by the golf.

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