Way back when, before the age of cell phones and constant connectivity, people could conspicuously move from place to place without their baggage following them. For the most part, anyways. This is the story of John Montague, known in Hollywood as magnificent, mysterious, and ultimately, a fugitive.
A burly man in his 20’s who could powerhouse a ball 300 yards down the fairway in the 1930’s, called himself John Montague. He burst onto the Hollywood scene at the start of the Great Depression, popping up at public golf courses all around the area, baffling other golfers with his force off the tee. When he was asked what he did for a living, he never said. When he was asked where he was from, he never said. He emitted this aura of mystery that intrigued those around him.
In a time where people were traveling to Los Angeles in hopes of stardom or any opportunity in a time that was bereft of that, Montague only wanted to play golf. No one had seen someone attack the game with the same fervor as this burly man who drove fast cars and dressed in gentleman’s clothing. He made impossible shots look easy and made more putts than he missed.
Rumors started to accumulate about this mysterious man who was breaking every record on the golf course. According to the Smithsonian, some of the rumors included were a bit outrageous, but who’s to say they weren’t true.
He had pointed at a string of birds on a telephone wire 175 yards away from a tee at Fox Hills Country Club, picked out a bird in the line, unleashed his three wood and smacked a shot that not only hit the bird, but struck it dead, broke its neck. Broke its neck! He supposedly would open a window in the clubhouse, any clubhouse, prop it open with a water glass, then knock a succession of chips through the small space, never breaking the window nor whacking the wall. He supposedly hit a box of matches off a cocker spaniel’s head. The dog never blinked.
John Montague soon became the man to know. He began hanging out with the Academy Award winner Richard Arlen, who was fascinated with the strong-man’s abilities on and off the golf course. He suggested, and helped him, become a member at the Lakeside Golf Club, which adorned many celebrity faces including but not limited to Oliver Hardy, Johnny Weissmuller, Douglas Fairbanks and Howard Hughes. Even Bing Crosby was a member at this clearly prestigious club.
He quickly became the club champion and would make bets with anyone on anything, a trick shot star before trick shots were common practice. He bet that he could drive a golf ball three-quarters of a mile in five shots, bet he could chip onto the practice green through the clubhouse window, bet he could stack and bury three balls in a sand trap and hit only the middle one out of the trouble.
Even without cell phones, news traveled fast, and Bing Crosby became intrigued with this new club champion and played with him frequently. After one round at the 19th hole, Crosby on the losing side of the scorecard again, he bemoaned that it was bad shots that had cost him the round. Montague refuted that statement and promised Crosby that he would have won either way and that he could beat him without even using golf clubs. Thus begins the most famed Montague story of him using a baseball bat, a shovel, and a rake to beat the country’s most famous singer of that era.
And it was enough. It was enough for Montague to be the club champion. It was enough for him to be a local celebrity. He never entered tournaments, never played with pro golfers, declined offers to become a pro. For reasons unknown to everyone other than Montague, he was perfectly fine with staying out of the spotlight. Except he misjudged his location. Hollywood is not the place to let local legends stay local.
Soon sportswriters were catching drift of the “greatest golfer on the west coast” and started writing stories about this mysterious man. Now rumors were public record and it wasn’t long before an intrigued detective became suspicious.New York State Police Inspector John Cosart had slowly become convinced that John Montague, mysterious golfer, was really LaVerne Moore of Syracuse, a former minor-league pitcher, reputed rumrunner and great golfer wanted for an armed robbery in the Adirondacks almost seven years before.
Montague was arrested at his home. He readily admitted that he was LaVerne Moore. The Los Angeles Times reported that when booked, “he was nattily attired in brown sports coat, striped white slacks, two-tone brown shoes, brown swagger hat and accessories to blend.” He had $43 and change in his pockets.
His celebrity friends backed him with expensive lawyers and he headed back to Syracuse with his head high. His trial was held in October 1937, in the sleepy Adirondacks burg of Elizabethtown. Montague was accused of being the fourth man in a Prohibition-era robbery of a roadhouse restaurant and speakeasy that netted some $700. One of the other robbers had been killed in a high-speed chase after the event. The other two had not only been arrested but had already been tried, convicted and incarcerated.
After high theatrics in the courtroom, the judge in the case, Harry Owen, was so upset he told the jurors their verdict was “not in accord with the one that I think you should have returned.” The defendant was carried from the courtroom on the shoulders of his supporters and was a free man.
At 34-years-old, Montague decided to give professional golf a try. He qualified for the U.S. Open in 1940 but shot 80 on the first day, 82 on the second, and missed the cut by nine shots. And that was that. He never lived up to his name professionally, but he made believers out of many.
Grantland Rice, three months before his own death, in 1954, wrote:
“A great many will tell you that Montague, originally a Syracuse boy, was overplayed. That isn’t true.”