Can’t Knock the Hustle

Driving-range sharks may no longer be circling, but the thrill of a wager will never die

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Evel Knievel was back in LA, once again taking risks no sane human would attempt. This time it was a challenge perhaps even more dangerous than jumping a line of cars on his Harley-Davidson: putting his money on the line at Los Alamitos Country Club. Sitting in the shadow of horse-racing hotbed Los Alamitos Race Course, the club was a well-known outpost for hustlers of the highest degree.

Knievel loved to golf, and, like so many players destined for calamity, genuinely believed he was better than he was. It wasn’t his first time taking on the bartenders, horse trainers and bookies who roamed the par-66  Los Alamitos—sharks who carried 12-handicaps but could shoot even-par on command. This time, however, things went more sideways than usual. Knievel ended his day down some $12,000, without anywhere near that number on him.

So the gentlemen of Los Alamitos did what any self-respecting swindlers would do: They locked Knievel’s fancy car in the cart barn until he could pay up. He eventually did, and, poor sap that he was, he also eventually tried his luck with them again.

“Those old Hollywood movies with pool sharks and hustlers are real,” Mike Miles tells me. Today, Miles is the general manager of The Yards, a golf club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, but he grew up selling golf balls on the range at Los Alamitos, watching marks like Knievel get fleeced in the 1970s and ’80s. “Our members were those guys: Golf in the morning, gamble like fiends, cheat like the dickens.”

John “Mysterious” Montague–one of the game’s all-time sharks.

I couldn’t get enough of Miles’ tales from those halcyon days—and more are coming—but I really wanted to know if he thought any of those kinds of players were still out there. Does he worry about some rogue infiltrating his club for a profitable weekend? Are the days of street-smart sticks making their living going city to city bleeding country clubbers over?

“They pretty much are,” Miles says, confirming my fears. He’s got a good reason why, too. But first, allow me to introduce a first-ballot member of the golf hustling hall of fame: John “Mysterious” Montague.

Montague came well before Miles’ time, showing up on the LA country club scene in the 1930s with an oversize driver and, according to mostly word-of-mouth accounts, superhuman ability. The great Leigh Montville profiled Montague’s life and ridiculous times in a 2008 story for Smithsonian Magazine. “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,” Montville wrote. “He supposedly hit a box of matches off a cocker spaniel’s head. The dog never blinked.”

Montague’s legend grew, and eventually he found himself at the epicenter of Hollywood’s golf circle: Lakeside Country Club, home to the most famous entertainers of the era, including the likes of Bing Crosby, Johnny Weissmuller, Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope. It was a raucous place; W.C. Fields, another famous member, lived across Toluca Lake and was known to row across for his tee times, flask of gin in hand. Montague quickly became club champion, taking money in legitimate matches and crazy bets like chipping onto the practice green through the clubhouse window or stacking and burying three balls in a sand trap and knocking only the middle one out.

His most famous hustle there came at the expense of Crosby, one of the nation’s most famous men at the time. They dueled often. After losing a match, they were rehashing the round in the bar when Crosby began lamenting his bad luck. Montague replied that he was simply a better player, and to prove it he would take Crosby on in a one-hole match with only a baseball bat, a shovel and a rake. Crosby took the bet and the bait. (As Montville wrote, “Maybe Crosby should have suspected something if his opponent just happened to have a baseball bat, shovel and rake in the car.”)

Montague promptly ripped his baseball-bat drive some 350 yards into a greenside bunker, shoveled the ball to about 8 feet, then, wielding the rake like a pool cue, drained the putt. Crosby could only manage par. “That was enough for me,” the crooner reportedly said of the incident. “I went back to the clubhouse for a little more conviviality.”

There were no baseball-bat-aided drives at Los Alamitos, but Miles says there was plenty of Vaseline. The hustlers there would grease their irons with it to reduce hooks and slices. “When we cleaned golf carts at the end of the day, we knew not to put our hands too far down the wheel wells,” he says. “That’s where all that stuff was.”

Their games were crafted by hand (and sleight of hand). Miles remembers everyone having a different, funky, self-taught swing that they refused to change because it made them look more like the double-digit handicappers they professed to be. There was a player known only as 3-Iron Bates, who just went around town challenging people to play matches with nothing but the club in his name.

“It was a wild scene,” Miles says with the knowing chuckle of someone who had a true education in the game. “I think it was because LA attracted those types. Lots of people wanted to get into the glitz-and-glamour Hollywood scene, and we were close to Vegas, too.”

Miles, who is a hell of a player himself and went on to play professionally for several years, says while he was no choir boy when it came to gambling on the course, back then young guns with ability from his side of the tracks had to make a decision. “We were warned as kids: You can be a hustler or a golfer, but you can’t do both,” he says. “Sure, [Lee] Trevino and [Raymond] Floyd were good enough to come up through those ranks, but that was about it.”

And that, he says, is part of the reason why there are no more Mysterious Montagues running through your city. In the age of Tiger Woods and the FedExCup, there is too much money in the game for anyone with even a spark of talent to ignore. Why spend hours perfecting a trick that may net a couple C-notes when the real money is in extra time on the putting green? He says golf today is more cleaned up, more mainstream.

But he’s not mourning days gone by—Miles knows that the adrenaline rush of making and taking a wager will never leave the game. He’s got a Friday skins game going at his place that’s become so popular that local professionals and actual double-digits sometimes have to go off in 10-somes to play for an ever-spiraling pot of cash.

“You would think all the crappy players would have stopped playing [in the skins game], but they keep coming back because you just never know,” he says. “It’s golf. Everyone wants to mix it up.”