Critics who think bestselling sports biographer Montville’s popularity rests on that of his gargantuan subjects, from Ted Williams to Dale Earnhardt, had better think again: He hits the pin in one with this page-turning account of a long-forgotten golfer.
John Montague (1904–72) achieved mythic status in mid-1930s Hollywood when word got out that he had beaten Bing Crosby at a hole—some said an entire round—at the prestigious Lakeside Golf Club using a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake instead of a golf club. This curiously secretive, camera-shy crackpot could knock birds off telephone wires from 175 yards and drive the ball 350 yards in an age when woods were still made of wood. Major sportswriters of the period like Grantland Rice figured largely in introducing to the world this “Sphinx of the Links,” demonstrates Montville (The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, 2006, etc.) in an adroit tale that is as much about its tellers as their subject. “The Phantom of the Fairways” made great copy: He “moved with a mixture of menace and mirth” and had been witnessed on several occasions picking up 303-pound Oliver Hardy and depositing him on the Lakeside’s bar using only one hand. In fact, were it not for the national media attention Montague’s antics garnered, he probably never would have been arrested in 1937 and charged with having committed armed robbery in upstate New York seven years earlier. Montague confessed that he was LaVerne Moore of Syracuse, N.Y., and admitted fleeing to California after his golf bag was found in one of the gunmen’s crashed car. On the witness stand, however, he denied having anything to do with the robbery. Montville’s cinematic recounting of the trial and its aftermath will make readers feel like they’re right there in the courtroom.
Explaining why reporters loved to write about Montague, the author declares, “Intrigue is a better seller than great golf any day.” Here, he gives readers both.