The Mysterious Montague Book Review

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The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery

Grade: B
Teacher’s Comments: A good read, as much a true crime story as it is about golf.

There seems to be a natural affinity between golf and mystery literature. Perhaps it’s the mysterious nature of the game itself—how it can seem so easy, and yet be so difficult; how players can find and lose their swings in a matter of moments; and all of the other seeming contradictions.

Golf mysteries from authors such as Roberta Isleib are among my favorite summer reading material. 

In The Mysterious Montague, Leigh Montville takes the golfing mystery to the realm of the real-life crime and trial drama.

The mysterious John Montague first surfaces in Hollywood in 1932 at the Lakeside club, a golfer of prodigious strength and surprisingly deft touch. (The descriptions immediately reminded me of John Daly.) He played with clubs so large no one else could swing them, producing drives of 300, 350 yards.

His past was fuzzy, but then so were the pasts of so many in the early Hollywood boom town. All the stars knew is that he was enjoyable to be around and played a terrific game of golf.

Montague fell in with some of the biggest luminaries of that Hollywood era: WC Fields, Bing Crosby, Johnny Weissmuller, Howard Hughes and Oliver Hardy. That last friendship would be an enduring one: Montague actually roomith Hardy for some time.

Hardy also was part of Montague’s “show”: In an amazing display of strength, Montague would lift the 300 pound comedian with one hand. He also could lift cars.

Strong, yes. But it was Montague’s golf that made his reputation. He once beat Bing Crosby with a fungo bat, a rake and a shovel (inspiration, perhaps for the movie, Tin Cup?). He dropped a bird off a wire with a drive from 175 away. He could chip shots through four inch openings in the windows. Montague regularly shot in the 60s and could hold his own against the celebrated George von Elm, who had won the 1926 US Amateur over Bobby Jones.

National attention came to Montague when legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote of his exploits in one of this national columns, calling Montague one of the world’s great golfers. Other columnists and sportswriters followed.

Montague wanted to avoid the publicity, however, for he was a wanted man—indicted in New York for armed robbery some seven years earlier. (I’m giving nothing away here. The book actually begins with the crime).

As a result of the new notoriety, Montague is recognized and ultimately extradited to New York for trial.

While the book’s first half is dedicated to the legend of Montague, the second is devoted to the trial and aftermath. It is, in the end, a sad story of talent wasted—or at the very least, never realized.

I thought the book well written, easy to read and quite interesting. The author paints an interesting portrait of a man and a time.

But while the true crime and golf aspect was interesting, I found another thought—not particularly emphasized by the author—even more fascinating: Montague surely was the forerunner of the modern golfer. When sports columnist Grantland Rice first met Montague in the early 1930s, he was at the height of his physical prowess and was playing the bomb-and-gouge strategy that today has become the staple of the PGA Tour.

The difference between what Rice saw in 1933 and 1934 and what everyone else saw in 1937 and beyond was about fifty yards. The young Montague had found a technological secret with his oversize driver and had the strength to control it. He was fifty, sixty, seventy years ahead fo this time, hitting the ball 300, 350 yards further than everyone else.

This was not illusion, Rice saw what he saw, knew what he knew, not only as a sportswriter, but also a very good golfer. He had played with the greats of this evolving game, covered them in their big moments, walked next to them when they made history. None of them played the way the young Montague played. This was the future—hit the ball long on the first shot, hit the ball high on the second shot, putt for the birdie. The development of new, lighter materials and bigger and bigger clubs would bring the game this way. Future stars like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods would move the game in this direction. The young Montague was a first step.

Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence that Montague had any influence on future golfers—the pros of the age were not impressed by the exploits of a sometime country club champion. But it’s food for thought. He clearly was onto something long before anyone else.

For summer reading, The Mysterious Montague is worth picking up.

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