Why Nathaniel Crosby holds a special place in the game

June 10, 2008

As his father had a gift for singing, Nathaniel Crosby has a gift for talking. When the younger Crosby won the 1981 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, four years after Bing’s death on a Madrid golf course, Dave Marr of ABC did an interview with the then 19-year-old Crosby that went on forever, even though Marr’s questions were short and to the point. Nathaniel has a black-and-white picture from the ’75 Junior World Golf Championship — played annually at Torrey Pines, site of this week’s U.S. Open, and other San Diego courses — that shows him from the back and Bing from the front, but even from behind you can tell that the kid’s doing the talking. Nathaniel’s wife, Sheila, has been known to say, “He can talk, can’t he?” Jackie Burke, the former Masters winner and Crosby’s godfather, signed a book for Nathaniel with these words: “Your father left me with a hell of a job.” As they are both plus-4 talkers, you can imagine their practice-tee sessions. In an act of self-protection, Crosby doesn’t pick up ringing landline phones in his high-ceilinged house at Lost Tree, the South Florida development where Jack Nicklaus also lives. A bad day for him would be one in which he lost his iPhone charger.

Some of Nathaniel’s language is straight out of Bing’s performing heyday. (Bing’s competitive golf highlight came in 1950, when he played in the British Amateur on the Old Course, losing in the first round to a St. Andrews carpenter as 20,000 people followed them.) In conversation Nathaniel will refer to boldface names from yesteryear (Jimmy Durante would be a prime example) as “hot dogs.” Find another 46-year-old anywhere who uses hot dog that way. If Crosby wants to tell you something off the record, he’ll say, “I wouldn’t want to say this out loud.” For angry, he’ll use cross. When was the last time you heard that? He refers to the yips, which infect his chipping, as “the virus.” When a comedian — a Jackie Gleason, a Phil Harris, Bob Hope off camera, Jack Benny never — worked blue, Bing would say he “got so trash can,” and Nathaniel uses that phrase today.

Even when he’s not using phrases from the golden age of radio, Nathaniel Crosby’s speech is out of a time warp: American college life, circa 1982. If Crosby says, of no one in particular, “She lost her amateur status,” it may have nothing to do with a female golfer cashing a tournament check. Regarding his own effort to become a reinstated amateur — he played three years of professional golf after graduating from the University of Miami in 1984 — Crosby says it was easy: “I hit a bucket of balls for a USGA guy, and he says, ‘You’re right. You’re no pro.'” It’s a line he’s been using for years, but he tells it fresh, and he tells it clean. Bing’s son does not work trash can.

The game of golf is Crosby’s second-favorite subject, eclipsed only by the business of golf. In 1988, at age 26, after playing the European tour for three years, Crosby became the president of Toney Penna Golf, an equipment manufacturer. (“In three years in Europe, I went from 87th on the money list to 105th to 155th,” Crosby says. “As they say on Wall Street, I was negative trending.”) Later, he became an executive at two other equipment companies, first at Nicklaus Golf Equipment, later at Orlimar, where he was a pioneer in direct marketing through infomercials. In 1997, Crosby says, Orlimar had $1.5 million in gross sales; in 1998, his first year as president, it had $103 million in gross sales and $13 million in earnings. Unless you have an MBA and a lot of time, don’t get him started. Suffice it to say that nobody can analyze the rate of returns of infomercial fairway-wood sales with more enthusiasm than Crosby. Regarding the proliferation of those half-hour, middle-of-the-night ads on high-numbered cable channels, Crosby says, “The infomercial business is kept alive by every guy in a garage with an invention, a patent and a dream.”

Soon after becoming the president of Toney Penna Golf, Crosby went to Asia for 11 days with Bob Hope. By day on this road show, Hope and Crosby would play golf and meet with highly placed government finance and trade ministers — too highly placed to be useful to Crosby — and the occasional golf distributor. At night Hope would perform, working Crosby into his show and teaching him how to deliver a line. Of the legendary friendship between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Nathaniel says there was no rivalry, even after each had a California pro-am tournament bearing his name. “They wished each other the best every day of their lives,” Crosby says. Hope paid Nathaniel $10,000 to accompany him on that 1989 trip. Why? “Because Bob Hope was a very kind man and a great friend of my father’s,” Crosby says. “And because he had never spent much time with me.” When Crosby won the Amateur, Hope, watching on a pro-shop TV in Minneapolis, cried like a baby, according to an assistant pro in the shop that day.

Crosby was introduced to golf by his father, who made 13 holes in one in his life, a comment on both the crooner’s skill and how much he played. For years Bing and Nathaniel, the last of his seven children (four from his first marriage, three from his second), played golf five times a week when Bing wasn’t on the road. Bing’s main swing thought for Nathaniel was “use more club.” When Nathaniel, at 15, won the club championship against the menfolk at Burlingame Country Club in suburban San Francisco, where they lived, Bing went home to his wife, Kathryn, and said, “Today is the happiest day of my life.” Your guess to her response is likely correct.

Despite Bing’s role, Nathaniel learned the basics of the game from an improbable source. “We lived on a five-acre parcel where I’d hit plastic balls with our Irish nanny, Bridget, who was a lefty and a pro, and it was Bridget who taught me the grip,” Crosby says. “She died when I was 11. My daughter Bridget is named for her.” Nathaniel and Sheila have six children in their house off Jack Nicklaus Drive, four from Nathaniel’s first marriage, two from hers, all between 12 and 17. On weekends the kids often bring friends to the house in North Palm Beach. Yes, it’s bedlam.

Crosby is a member of the nearby Seminole Golf Club, the winter hangout for a small knot of former USGA presidents. To be, like Crosby, a former U.S. Amateur winner who plays golf for pleasure and not for money is to have a heightened status within the USGA hierarchy. He sometimes speaks at the annual U.S. Amateur dinner — he speaks some years at the Masters amateur dinner too — and in the USGA sanctum sanctorum, Crosby’s two moments in the USGA sun are part of organizational lore. The first and best known is his win in the ’81 Amateur at Olympic (for which he received congratulatory notes from Fred Astaire and Gerald Ford, among other hot dogs). The second came less than a year later, at the ’82 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Crosby nipped by a shot another college player, Corey Pavin, to win the medal for low amateur.

Why are these successes legendary in the halls of Golf House in Far Hills, N.J.? For starters, Crosby was very young and nothing like an amateur superstar. At times on the Miami golf team he played as the second or third or fourth man. Then there’s the matter of where he did what he did. He won the Amateur while spending his nights in his childhood bed, with a window facing the five-acre parcel where Bridget the nanny first showed him the grip. He won his U.S. Open medal for low amateur in a place, Pebble Beach, that was like a second home to him, on a legendary links that will forever be associated with his father. And then there’s how he did what he did, coming back from two down with three to play in the Amateur, making a 9 in the second round of the Open but still making the cut. Karma city.

Don’t misunderstand: Crosby was very good, and he was often the best player on his Miami team. But he was never anything like a Pavin or a Brad Faxon or a Jodie Mudd, the can’t-miss kids of that era. Herbert Warren Wind, the least ruthless and most understated of golf scribes, wrote of Crosby in The New Yorker, “His swing was so unimpressive that most observers felt there had to be at least a thousand better amateur golfers in the country.” Crosby’s one-two USGA punch — the ’81 Amateur, the ’82 U.S. Open — has to be a prime example of what Michael Murphy, the author of Golf in the Kingdom, calls “a peak experience,” an attempt to explain an athlete’s ability to rise to the occasion.

And on this airy subject, and on almost no other, you cannot get the plus-4 talker to talk. It’s easy to see Crosby as Jack Fleck, winning the 1955 U.S. Open over Ben Hogan at Olympic; Chris Patton winning the 1989 U.S. Amateur at Merion; Hilary Lunke winning the 2003 U.S. Open at Pumpkin Ridge. To see Crosby among the winners who came out of the blue. Crosby has a different take. His view is that he played the shots and won the hardware. What more is there to it than that?

For some golf people, though, Crosby’s two USGA medals are an enjoyable and enduring sporting mystery. Sandy Tatum, who was Crosby’s captain on a World Amateur team, has been puzzling over it for 25 years. How did Crosby play his best in the places most meaningful to him? “It’s the darnedest thing,” says Tatum, a former USGA president who witnessed both events and lived for decades in San Francisco.

Of a half-dozen people asked recently about Crosby’s USGA feats, it was a novelist — and how fitting is that? — who came closest to taking the lid off the subject. J. Michael Veron is a writer of golf fiction, a Louisiana lawyer, a scratch player, a USGA committee member and a friend of Crosby’s. Speaking of those two weeks in Crosby’s golfing life, Veron says, “I don’t know what tune Bing was humming in Nathaniel’s ear, but the beat must have been perfect.”

For Nathaniel, it’s easier to turn those two events into a line, one he delivers well. (Bob Hope would be pleased.) Crosby says, “My father sang White Christmas. My sister shot J.R. I had to do something to make a name for myself.” Nathaniel’s sister, Mary Crosby, played J.R.’s mistress on the TV series Dallas, about an obnoxious Texas oil family, and is the answer to the ubiquitous 1980 question, “Who Shot J.R.?”

Somebody, upon learning that Nathaniel’s father was Bing, once said to Nathaniel, “That’s as famous as famous gets.” Some of that fame landed in Nathaniel’s lap. He’s the skinny kid in the V-neck sweater, with the plastered hair and the braces, in some of the Bing Crosby Christmas specials. (He appeared in 11 of them.) Tens of millions of people watched those shows, when TV was dominated by three networks and boredom was a way of life. There was a vast built-in audience for any news about Nathaniel Crosby, and then he went out and won a national golf title. No modern winner of the U.S. Amateur ever got more attention in victory, except maybe Tiger Woods, and then only when he won it for a second time (and then a third).

At the ’81 Amateur, Crosby defeated Willie Wood, then one of the best college players in the country, in the semifinal. In the final, as Crosby came roaring back against Brian Lindley, a 24-year-old aerospace engineer, he’d pump his fists after good shots, drawing this hilarious hiss from the English commentator Peter Alliss of ABC: “I don’t know if dear old dad would approve of that.”

The next year, at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — the one Tom Watson won with his chip-in on the 71st hole — Crosby provided his own drama. His big fat seaside 9 came on the 14th hole of the Friday round. He followed that by playing the last four holes in one under to shoot a 73 and make the cut by two. In the fourth round, leaking oil like an old Ford Falcon, Crosby made a double bogey on 15, a bogey on 16, another on 17 and a scrape-it-around par on the last, with Pavin standing beside the 18th green with his arms crossed. “Retrospectively, that round has become way more important to me,” Crosby says. “Back then I thought there would be a lot of that.”

He graduated from Miami and gave the pro game his best shot. Crosby had a good head for golf and fuel in his tank. He worked hard. But innate golfing talent, at the level needed to grind it out week after week and make a mark as a touring pro, was another matter. The week at Olympic was from somewhere else. The Pebble week was too.

Crosby believes in courses for horses, which is why, like everyone else, his picks for this week are Phil and Tiger, who have owned Torrey Pines since they were teenagers. Both can play high long-iron shots that, to borrow a phrase Bing liked and Nathaniel still uses, “land like a butterfly with sore feet.” The high long-iron was one of the secrets to Nicklaus’s four wins in the national championship, and Nathaniel and his dad often spent Father’s Day watching the final round of the U.S. Open on TV, rooting for Big Jack. When Nicklaus held his first Memorial tournament in 1976, Bing showed up to help launch it.

Bing Crosby is one of the patron saints of the USGA. He and Hope won the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor, in 1970, and the USGA museum has had exhibits honoring Crosby for, among other things, inventing the celebrity pro-am and making so many aces. (He made one on the famous over-the-cove 16th at Cypress Point with, Nathaniel noted recently, a 48-inch driver. His swing was dripping syrup.) Crosby organized the first celebrity pro-am in 1937, at the Rancho Santa Fe golf course, near San Diego. (Today, there’s a course in Rancho Santa Fe, designed by Fred Couples and Brian Curley, called Crosby National.) David Fay, the USGA executive director, believes that Dwight Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer actually continued the movement that Crosby and Hope began: spreading the gospel of golf to America’s burgeoning middle class through their shows, interviews, movies, publicity stills and tournaments. Sooner or later, Crosby’s enthusiasm for golf showed up in everything he did.

“You can’t quantify what Bing Crosby did for golf, but you can’t overstate it either,” Fay says. The 1971 Crosby, with the tournament’s namesake providing the commentary for ABC, was watched in 11.5 million homes. Golf was good to Bing, and Bing was good for golf. The performer once said, “If I were asked what single thing has given me the most gratification in my long and sometimes pedestrian career, I would have to say it is this tournament.” Remembering that quote the other day, Nathaniel was struck by his father’s use of pedestrian.

In his private life, many of Bing’s most trusted friendships — notably with George Coleman, a well-placed and well-known golf personage — came through the game. Nathaniel inherited the friendship. When he was at Miami he played dozens of rounds with Coleman at Seminole, where Coleman was the longtime president. Hope was another trusted friend. Above all the other things they were together, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were golf partners, Nathaniel says.

Today, if Nathaniel envies anything about Hope’s legacy, it is this: that the Hope name, five years after the comedian’s death, is still on the Hope tournament. The Crosby name was taken off the Pebble Beach tournament in 1985 by Kathryn Crosby after she and the tournament’s board of directors got into a dispute over who would run the tournament and dispense its invitations. Nathaniel didn’t want his father’s name withdrawn, but when the fight was coming to a boil he was playing the European tour and not in a position to do anything to simmer things down. “My mom and I are close now,” he says, “but that was a tough time.”

For years, much of Nathaniel’s identity was wrapped up in the Crosby. After his father’s death in 1977, Nathaniel, at 16, became the official tournament host. He remembers getting a call from Tom Weiskopf, who wanted a friend invited as an amateur. Weiskopf said to the teenager, just old enough to drive, “I owe you a favor.” Tom Weiskopf! The man was a golfing god to the young Crosby. Nathaniel served on the board that runs the tournament until about five years ago. He had stopped going to meetings when his first marriage was breaking up, and he was told that his services were no longer needed. He was upset but not hurt. He knew what the Clambake had turned into: a business. His father’s golfing get-together is now in the netherworld, with yesterday’s fog.

The demise of the old Crosby — despite the spectacular setting, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am has become a second-tier event with little star power — is a painful reminder to Nathaniel that his father’s fame is fading. “When they were both alive, Dad was a lot more famous than Bob Hope,” Crosby says. “But Dad’s name, image and likeness have not been promoted aggressively.” That may sound cold and calculating, but it’s also true. He hopes there will someday be another Crosby pro-am, maybe on the Champions tour. Nathaniel Crosby, a self-described marketing man and entrepreneur, sees how expertly the names, images and likenesses of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra are marketed today. He would like to see dozens of Crosby golf courses and Crosby restaurants. He’d like to see stores and websites dedicated to selling Crosby albums and movies and radio shows and TV specials. (According to one study Nathaniel cites, the name most associated with Christmas, after Santa Claus, is Bing Crosby.) But the licensing of the Crosby name is controlled by Kathryn Crosby, who has her own ideas, and Nathaniel’s business focus these days is elsewhere. He is immersed in launching an all-purpose golf advertising agency, where he plans to use the lessons from his Orlimar experience — he calls it “the 1-800, direct-response, profitable advertising model” — to sell and deliver all things golf: clubs, devices, real estate, vacations, you name it. His father was an astute and innovative businessman and a careful spender. Nathaniel would like to think he’s exactly the same.

During a recent lunch at a roadside cafe near his home, a TV played an infomercial for SkyCaddie, and Crosby made educated guesses about its particulars: who shot it, how the device was priced, where the owners were buying their media. Later, the Ray Charles classic Georgia on My Mind played over the restaurant speakers. Crosby listened to Charles’s raspy voice and distinctive timing, backed by a string section and a choir of angelic ’50s-style singers, and said, “Dad would have loved this arrangement.” In the recording Charles gave meaning to every word and phrase. Bing did the same thing.

The lives of two of Bing’s four sons with Dixie Lee, his first wife, ended in suicide, and now all four are dead. Nathaniel knew his much-older half brothers, but never lived with them. Between Bing’s first family and his second there was “something like the Great Wall of China,” Nathaniel says. Bing’s second go-around, with Kathryn and the three children they had together, was by all accounts a happy experience. Bing was 54 when he married 23-year-old Kathryn Grant in 1957, and he was 58 when Nathaniel was born. If Bing were alive today he’d be 105. He was easily old enough to have been Nathaniel’s grandfather.

But he had energy, and he nurtured the interest of each child, as Nathaniel explains it, and made a particular effort to spend one-on-one time with each of the kids. Harry, the oldest of the trio, a successful Wall Street investment banker and investor, had an early interest in nature and often went on hunting and fishing trips with his father. Mary, who lives in Malibu with her husband and children and who still acts occasionally, spent time with her father on various overseas father-daughter vacations, and Bing played an active role in getting her started as an actress. Nathaniel and his father were often on the golf course together, or at Candlestick Park, watching baseball or football, surrounded by other paying spectators. Bing wore his celebrity so comfortably that he could go anywhere and not be bothered. Nathaniel remembers going to a 49ers game with his father, settling into their seats and then hearing his father say, “I’ll be right back.” He went to the field, sang the national anthem and returned immediately to his seat and to his son.

When Bing joined Nathaniel at the World Junior at Torrey Pines in ’77, he brought a big, clumsy box camera to the course, intent on getting a shot of Nathaniel and Bobby Clampett together. “Dad was sure that Clampett would be the next Nicklaus,” Nathaniel says. As for Nathaniel’s golf, Bing got a kick out of it. He had a son who was a very good junior golfer. He told an interviewer, “I think Nathaniel will be very pleased to play high-level amateur golf.” Nathaniel heard that interview and later said, “Wrong, Dad.” (You can’t keep a good talker down.) But Bing didn’t crowd his son, and at Torrey Pines that year, among many other places, he watched Nathaniel play from a fairway away. He gave Nathaniel space. “I had a great father,” Nathaniel says. “The three of us [children] each got what we needed from him.” Nathaniel got golf — and words.

Father and son both loved golf in Spain, and while playing in Europe, Nathaniel took a special interest in the stylish play of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. He can tell you the tournaments at which he finished ahead of them. When he played in the 1986 Spanish Open at the La Moraleja Golf Club he experienced the first migraine of his life. It was so severe he had to spend a night in a hospital. (Such headaches plagued him for years but no longer do.) That it came at the course where his father played his last round and took his last breath, Nathaniel Crosby sees as a coincidence and nothing more. Bing Crosby’s last words were, “That was a great game of golf, fellas.”

Except for the phrases he borrows from his father, there’s nothing about Nathaniel that readily brings to mind Bing. He doesn’t have his father’s cool, mellow speaking voice or his lively eyes or prominent ears or slim physique. The heels of Nathaniel’s loafers sort of drag across the floor — he’s not light on his feet, as his father was. He has never run from being the son of Bing Crosby, and he’s happy to talk about him, but he has never turned it into a full-time gig, either. For the past half-dozen years or so, as he divorced and remarried, Nathaniel played golf sparingly and worked mostly as a consultant. “Sheila and I were both on the receiving end of our divorces, and we were among the walking wounded,” he says, meaning that neither initiated their breakups. He’s admirably open. “But we’ve figured out a way to make this whole Brady Bunch thing work.” Now that his home life is whole again, Nathaniel is looking to return to competitive golf and, more significant, get back into the business of golf. “This time I’m swinging for the fences,” he says, speaking of the business he is planning to launch. He doesn’t expect to win another U.S. Amateur, but he’d like to have a shot at a U.S. Senior Amateur when he turns 55.

The garage at his North Palm Beach house is filled with golf clubs, surfboards, fishing equipment, tennis rackets and all the other accoutrements of the affluent Florida life. Except at Christmastime you won’t hear much of Bing’s music in the house. Bing’s legacy shows up in other ways (some of Nathaniel’s kids are playing golf too), and almost every day Nathaniel is moved to recall his father in some specific way. Maybe you remember Bing’s old Minute Maid spots. When Nathaniel drops his voice and recites his father’s famous tagline — “there’s no doubt about it” — you’d swear Bing Crosby were still alive.