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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

"Reports are to hand of a mighty man of sport who would seem to combine the fabulous prowess of Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Popeye the Sailor with the remarkable social knacks of Ivan Petrovsky Skovar, the Muscovite hero of the old college doggerel who could imitate Irving, tell fortunes with cards and sing to a Spanish guitar," Pegler reported. "The man's name is given as Johnny Montague and his field of operations is Hollywood, but it seems unlikely that our story is a publicity plant, for he avoids publicity and will not permit anyone to take his picture if he can prevent it."

Pegler's breathless account brought more attention. ("Can he make toast?" the columnist asked a source at the end of the column. "Can he make toast?" the source exclaimed. "Give him an egg and he will churn you up the best fried chicken you ever tasted.") Montague's name was soon appearing in the Los Angeles papers. People began asking questions.

Who was this guy? Was he as good as these two famous writers said he was? Where did he come from? What did he do for a living? Time magazine was among those who wanted to know.

The 13-year-old newsweekly sent not only a reporter, but also a photographer to the West Coast to bring back the story. The photographer hid behind a tree with a telephoto lens, captured a couple of fuzzy images. The reporter, rebuffed by his subject, compiled what facts or rumors he could.

Montague "lives in Beverly Hills with Comedian Oliver Hardy..., whom he can pick up with one hand," Time reported on January 25, 1937. "When not in residence with Hardy, he is ‘somewhere in the desert,' where he is supposed to own a silver mine or gold mine. He has two Lincoln Zephyrs and a supercharged Ford, specially geared for speed. He is about 33, 5 ft. 10 in. 220 lb. He is built like a wrestler, with tremendous hands, bulldog shoulders and biceps half again as big as Jack Dempsey's. His face is handsome, disposition genial. He can consume abnormal quantities of whiskey. He frequently stays up all night and recently did so five nights in a row. He is naturally soft-spoken and dislikes hearing men swear in the presence of ladies."

Time liked to attach an identifying descriptor to last names: "Aviator Lindbergh," "Automaker Chrysler," "Cinemactor Gable." For Montague, it was "Mysterious Montague." The name stuck. Everyone seemed to be talking about Mysterious Montague.

There were reports of further feats. There were reports that previous feats had been greatly exaggerated. There was an invitation to play in the British Open. There were rumors of a match for $50,000 against Bobby Jones, who would come out of retirement for it.

Grantland Rice's first crazy thought that the best golfer in the world might be someone the public had never seen, someone who had never entered a tournament, now ran through the sport. An editorial in the June 1937 issue of American Golfer basically dared John Montague to put up or shut up. The headline was "An Appeal to Mr. Montague."

"Today, the mystery surrounding him has reached such proportions as to become a menace to the reputations of those whose business is golf," the magazine stated. "We ask Mr. Montague to give the golfers of this country, a large percentage of which we represent, a fair opportunity to judge the true merits of his game. Such judgment can only be made by his appearance in competition."

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