Interview with Leigh Montville

The sportswriter discusses John Montague’s fabled antics and how the man changed golf

Cheryl Carlin

Bestselling sportswriter Leigh Montville was researching Babe Ruth for his 2006 book, The Big Bam, when he came across an exhibition golf match Ruth played with a man named John Montague. The round attracted about 10,000 people, who became so rowdy that the match was called after nine holes, and Montville got the sense that it was the mysterious Montague, whose name didn't ring a bell, that drew the crowd, not the Bambino. "I started looking into it, and he had quite a story," says Montville of Montague, who, it turned out, was a fugitive taking cover as a golf stunt man of sorts in Hollywood. Montville tells the story of the golfing wonder in his new book, The Mysterious Montague, from which "Montague the Magnificent," a feature in Smithsonian's June issue, was adapted. We caught up with Montville to talk about Montague's fabled antics, how the man changed the sport and the state of Montville's own golf game.

It doesn't sound like Montague is a legend in the golf world, but more that he disappeared as fast as he appeared. Is that right?
Yeah. I hadn't heard of him and I've been a columnist at the [Boston] Globe and a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. I've been doing this all my life, and I had never heard of him. But he was quite well known during that time. He was a sensation. When he was arrested, it was in headlines around the country, and his trial was a big-time trial. All the New York newspapers sent all their best people, and the Associated Press. They pumped it out around the country. It was a big-time trial. I suppose there are people like that hidden away, but to me he's the biggest guy hidden away that I've ever found.

As a sports biographer, is there a type of person you gravitate towards writing about? What did Montague have that intrigued you?
With sports biographies—and any biographies today, I think—there's a big fight between the writer and the publisher. The writer wants to write the obscure story, the story that nobody knows about, which is the mysterious Montague. And the publisher wants you to write the book about Tiger Woods or some iconic big figure. I had done a bunch of iconic big figures, and that's what they liked, but I sold them on this. My thinking is that the story that nobody knows is far more entertaining than the biography of the big person. I can understand the big-person book sells immediately because you have a famous face on the cover and people gravitate towards that, whereas it's a harder sell with somebody that nobody's heard of. I just thought this guy's story was fascinating, that A) he had robbed a place in the Adirondacks, and B) he went out to Hollywood and reinvented himself and had become so close to so many famous people. There's a quality to this of, what if? If he had never had to operate under a false name and if everything had been on the up and up, could he have been the greatest golfer in the world? He clearly was a terrific golfer when he was younger and lean and mean. We'll never know. I think there are a bunch of people even now that we've all known in our own histories as the greatest athlete I've ever known and they never made it because of one thing or another. You always wonder how they would have done in the big time. And you kind of wonder about this guy.

How did you go about reporting the story?
It's a Google kind of world, isn't it? You start with that and you start looking in old newspapers. I went out to California and I was hoping I'd find more people out there who really remembered him. He died in 1972, and I thought there might have been some younger people who had known him then. I really didn't find that very much. I did talk to members of his family who had seen him when they were young, nieces and nephews. I did find one woman who was still alive who was one of the kids that was tied up in the armed robbery. But I was hoping that there were more people around who remembered him and there really weren't. But there had been an awful lot written about him and by great, colorful writers so there was a good record kept of him.

Any other complications?
I was hoping that there would be more records of the trial, police records, and I didn't come up with much at all. It turns out that there was a transcript kept of the trial, but when he was found not guilty they never printed it up. I guess that was the rule in New York. Maybe it still is today, that they would only print it up if they thought there would be an appeal. A lot of the transcript was in the papers. They had a lot of the questions and answers and dialogues in the papers. I was kind of looking to find the whole thing right there in a little pile for me.

How did Montague change the game of golf?
He was sort of a harbinger of what was going to come because he played with these unique golf clubs. He had a driver that was twice the size of the normal driver of the time. It was very heavy, about 19 ounces. The club head was very fat, like the Big Bertha of today – clubs that have helped the common man hit the ball a long way. But he was very strong and muscular and was able to use a heavy club. He played like Tiger Woods plays. He'd hit the ball 300 some odd yards, which not a lot of people did at that time, and then have easier wedge shots to go to the green than the other golfers would. That's what the great guys have done. That's what Nicklaus did, and that's what Tiger Woods does.

What surprised you the most about Montague's story?
I think what was pretty cool was that nobody really would have known about him if Grantland Rice, who was the most famous sportswriter of the day, hadn't been a member of the Lakeside Golf Club out in Hollywood. Grantland Rice was a very good golfer and had played with all the great golfers of the time, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan, and he got playing with this guy and he had the thought, Oh, my God. This is the best golfer I've ever played with and nobody knows his name. It was just Grantland Rice writing a few columns, and probably kind of throwaway columns in a way because he was half on vacation in California every year just looking for something to write about, and he started to write a couple things about Montague. Other people picked it up because Grantland Rice was everything in those days as a sportswriter. He was a sportscaster. He did books, magazine articles, and everybody kind of followed him. More and more people started writing about him, and bingo—Time magazine sends the guy out with the camera to take the secret pictures of him.

With all his stunts and bets, did other leading golfers take him seriously?
I think the guys who were professional golfers resented the idea that Grantland Rice and other people who had taken up the story would suggest that there was someone out there who was better than they were, because they were out on the road doing it all the time. But professional golf was a lot different then. There were people who didn't play professional golf who were very good golfers because professional golf didn't pay a lot of money at the time. You had to really grind it out and do exhibitions and all kinds of weird stuff to make a buck. That's why Bobby Jones was never really a professional golfer.

Was there a stunt of Montague's that intrigued you the most or really drew you into his story?
There was the great one where he supposedly killed the bird, where he just pointed out a bird on a wire 175 yards away, took out his three wood, smacked the ball, hit the bird and broke its neck and the bird fell down to the ground. That's like Annie Oakley or something, Hopalong Cassidy. Then, the famous story that everyone knew and he kind of lived on for the rest of his life was the bet with Bing Crosby where he said he could beat Bing Crosby using a shovel, a rake and a baseball bat while Crosby used the regular clubs. He clearly could do a lot of things. There are all those little stories about little bets he would have. He would open a window in the clubhouse no more than the size of a water glass and chip golf balls through the opening. He just had a bunch of trick shots that were kind of cool.

I liked how strong he was. Grantland Rice, before he died, said that Montague was probably the strongest guy he'd ever seen, which is saying a lot when you've covered all the great athletes of the day. He wasn't that big a guy. He was only about 5'10" or 5'11" but he was very wide, kind of a blacksmith's build. Picking up Oliver Hardy and placing him on a bar—I mean, we all have a vision of Oliver Hardy, and to do that with one arm is pretty good. The idea that he was always lifting up cars and moving them around is pretty good too.

Do you think anyone suspected at the time that he was a fugitive given his desire to remain anonymous?
It seems that people didn't know what to think about that. I suppose you would wonder a little bit why wouldn't this guy want his picture taken, but he always would say it was due to modesty. The sketchiness of where he came from and everything was kind of covered by [the fact that] Hollywood was filled with people who had come from all kinds of directions and changed their names for the movies and changed their histories. Hollywood is kind of an anonymous place when people come from all over to try to make a new life, a new career.

Any speculations about why he didn't go pro after the trial?
There were a couple of things. He was 34 years old at the end of the trial. He had put on a lot of weight, and he hadn't been playing a lot of golf while all that stuff was going on. He would have had to lose the weight and really thrown himself into golf to get back to what he was. He'd also gotten married to a widowed woman [after the trial] who had a lot of money. So between those two things, he didn't have the hunger and maybe physically he just wasn't up to it. He'd never had the competition. He'd never really gone out and had to play in a tournament for four and five straight days against a bunch of other good players. There was a combination of things, mostly his age and his weight, I think. He was on the decline.

Do you think there's room for someone like Montague—who adds an element of goofiness to the game—in today's golf scene?
Well, yeah. The guy you think of probably closest would be John Daly, who hits the ball and has very little self-control in his personal life. People are just fascinated by him. And I think this guy would wholly be as fascinating as that.

Are you a golfer yourself?
Bad. Although over the winter here [in New England], it might have all fallen into place. That's always the thinking with golfers in the North because you stop playing the first week in November, and I haven't played yet. I just think certain coordination and grace has come over me in the past four or five months, totally without doing anything.

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