local knowledge

The mind-blowing story of John Montague, the greatest golfer who would never play

November 17, 2023


In 1932, in Hollywood, CA, a man appeared seemingly out of the clear blue sky. Beyond a few rumors about mining interests in the desert, nobody knew anything about his past. He always seemed to have money, and he always seemed to be playing golf. His name was John Montague, and his game was astounding—as he made the rounds of the public courses in the Los Angeles area, his reputation couldn't help but grow. See, Montague played a style that was years ahead of its time. He swung a heavy driver with a massive head, sending balls more than 300 yards down the fairway, and he was the only one who could hit the club straight. His short game might have been even better—he was deadly from 100 yards in, phenomenal with a putter. This was bomb-and-gouge, done expertly, before bomb-and-gouge existed.

Many of his playing partners in those early days came away thinking they had just seen the greatest amateur in the country, but that's not all they came away with; Montague's personality was so big that soon his other exploits became almost as notorious as his game. These could be trick shots performed on the golf course—he could play carom shots off trees, or hit a bird off a wire from 70 yards away—or feats of strength off it.

Soon, he attracted the attention of Richard Arlen, a famous actor of the time, who began bringing him around to private clubs. Remarkably, by 1934, he was a member at Lakeside Golf Club, where he counted among his friends some of the biggest names of the time, including Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame), Johnny Weismuller, and Bing Crosby. His legend kept growing; he nearly broke the course record at Riviera, before purposefully quitting on the 18th hole; he could lift Hardy, a massive man, onto the bar in the clubhouse with one arm; he beat Crosby, a strong golfer, with a baseball bat, a shovel, and a garden rake. The only thing he wouldn't do is play in competitive tournaments. In fact, he seemed extremely keen on privacy; if a photographer got a photo of him, he'd take the film out of the camera and pay the man a few dollars for his trouble.


New York Daily News Archive

Perhaps it was inevitable that a man this notorious, in a town like Hollywood, would eventually see his name in the papers. That crossover into the public realm came courtesy of Grantland Rice, the most famous sportswriter in America. Rice played with Montague, and like everyone else who had the pleasure, he came away stunned. He dedicated an entire column to the man he said could beat anyone, anywhere, on a championship course. The minute the words were published, the curiosity about Montague went national.

And it changed the course of his story. Because along with attracting the attention of sports fans in the U.S., the increasing publicity about the "Mysterious Montague" caught the eye of a pair of police detectives back in New York. They thought it all sounded familiar—the prodigious strength, the fearsome skill on the course. John Montague, they suspected, was not some mine owner from the west, but someone quite different.

On this week's Local Knowledge, we explore the fascinating story of Montague, from his rise in Hollywood to the forces from his past that eventually caught up to him. Even today, when his name is largely forgotten even in the golf world, his legend retains a shocking originality; it's safe to say that nobody quite like him existed before, and hasn't since. You can listen to the episode below, or wherever you get your podcasts.