Arms pumping, jaw thrust out, with a little leap into his caddie's arms at the end, Nathaniel Crosby stepped out of the family photo album last week to win the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship, sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to cap a storybook finish in which he got all the girls and the Havemeyer Trophy and filled the shoes of his old man, Bing, who may have traveled with a song in his heart but had golf clubs in the car trunk.
When the 19-year-old Nathaniel finished Sunday's 36-hole match-play final at The Olympic Club in San Francisco tied with Brian Lindley, he had already come back from a huge deficit. With 10 holes remaining Nathaniel was 4-down, and with only three left he was two behind. But just when it seemed that the curtain was about to ring down on him, he would roll in another clutch putt, give a whoop and march on.
It had been like that all week, as young Crosby sauntered around and dispatched opponents with a scrappy, buccaneer's style, escaping from trees, rough and assorted flora. Often it was easy to imagine his father somewhere in the gallery, pipe in mouth, the bells of St. Mary's chiming faintly, and saying to Ingrid Bergman, "Kid's not bad."
The sentimentalists, who never get tired of this sort of thing, were made inescapably aware of Nathaniel's connection with his father, beginning with the fact that he was wearing, on a chain around his neck, the medal Bing won for making the field in the 1941 U.S. Amateur. Outside the gallery ropes, Bing's widow, Kathryn, followed the action outfitted in her husband's old hat, jacket and knickers, silently working over a whole raft of rosaries. Additional support was provided by a large group of friends from the Crosby clan's neighborhood in nearby Hillsborough.
September 13, 1981
After Crosby had made the winning putt and fallen back to earth from the clutches of his caddie, he hugged his mother and tried to keep from weeping.
"Congratulations, Mr. Crosby," said Kathryn. "Hey, what is this? No crying."
"I'm not crying," Nathaniel said. "I'm fighting it."
Later Kathryn Crosby said, "I'm glad the Mother Mary was on our side, but after all, Bing did play all of those priest roles."
It might appear that her son popped out of nowhere to win the Amateur, but the progress of the University of Miami junior has been steady, although his only previous titles were a Santa Clara County championship and a victory in one college tournament, the 1979 Las Vegas Rebel Invitational. That year he was co-medalist in the U.S. Junior Amateur. Crosby is best at match play, in which his scrambling and tenacity can upset an opponent. Coming into the Amateur, he noted that he had won 15 of the last 20 matches he'd played. On Sunday, over the final 11 holes on a championship course, he was one under par and acted like a prizefighter.
Crosby is only 5'10" and 160 pounds, but he is an emotional player, yelling at his ball—"Go!" "Sit!" "Stop!"—as if it were a pet dog. Occasionally, when he is about to hit a putt he truly needs, he will give his putter a sharp rap, as if to get its attention. Whatever, it worked. In his semifinal match on Saturday, Crosby came from 3-down after eight holes to beat Willie Wood 2-up, and at times some spectators almost expected him to look skyward and mutter, "Thanks."
It was obvious that his father was never far from his thoughts. "I definitely felt his presence, and thinking of him calmed me," Nathaniel admitted. "I wasn't absentmindedly touching that medal. He was in my mind all day."
Crosby's theatrics saved a tournament that needed help after the big names—Hal Sutton, the defending champion, Jodie Mudd, the 1980 and '81 U.S. Amateur Public Links titlist, and most of their Walker Cup teammates—made fast exits.
If anyone was born to smash a one-iron, it is Nathaniel Crosby, whose godfather is former Masters champion Jackie Burke. At age three, he was taking up divots in the Crosby backyard. Later he would join in friendly rounds with his father, who always needled him: "You never hit enough club." Recalls Nathaniel, "They were some of the happiest times of my life, on the golf course with my dad. I never felt closer to him."
Bing was a self-confessed golf fanatic who once figured that he had memberships at 70 different clubs, and while he didn't invent celebrity golf, he turned it into an art form with the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, now celebrated early each year on the Monterey Peninsula. Just hanging around, Nathaniel got an invaluable golfing education. On Oct. 14, 1977, when his father suffered a heart attack and died after playing 18 holes (he shot an 85) in Spain, the youngster assumed the sponsorship of the Crosby.
Bing's was a pretty big legend to follow, but Nathaniel has always been a serious sort, not a dilettante. He has said that he plays life one day at a time. He attended public schools, and he doesn't throw his heritage around. Last week he was "yes sir-ing" and "thank you-ing" everyone. In between matches he sipped milk, and on Saturday, on the 18th hole of his semifinal against Wood, when fans yelled, "Down in front," Nathaniel dutifully knelt.
He is, in fact, a likable, self-deprecating young man. Commenting on his relationship with his mentor, former PGA Tour player Toney Penna, he said, "I'm just a punk trying to learn from a wizard." And asked if he was upset when he fell behind in several matches, he answered, "I get sort of ornery out there. I'm a little upset all the time." He also agreed that being a Crosby helped last week: "Everybody in my family is talented. My father, my mother, my brother, my sister Mary. She shot J.R. Gosh, I had to win the Amateur."
He was asked what his father would have said if he had been there to see it. Answered Nathaniel, "He'd say, 'Kid, don't let it go to your head.' He taught me how to be humble. I can't see anyone handling success better than he handled it." And so occasionally, like a good trouper, Nathaniel would even applaud his opponent after an exceptional shot.
A lot of people were surprised that Crosby could play so well, but as a golfer who has borrowed parts of his game from touring pros (Ben Crenshaw's putting stance, for instance), he isn't a vaudeville act. That's a good thing because, although he has a crooner's Adam's apple, as his father had, he has, he says, "no talent as an entertainer."
He is serious, however, about making a career as a professional golfer. "Can you think of a better profession?" asks his mother. "He planned all of this when he was nine. There are plans and there are dreams. He planned it." Says Maurie Ver Brugge, the pro at Nathaniel's home course, the Burlingame Country Club, which is only a couple of three-irons from Olympic, "He works as hard as anybody I've ever seen, pro or amateur. I've seen him bordering on pneumonia, but putting in the rain for hours. He eats, sleeps and drinks the game."
Crosby wasn't too keen about his chances early in the week. He opened with a 72 in the qualifying, then shot an 80. His mother had an explanation: "Some girl in sprayed-on jeans followed him around all day, which just proves that even Nathaniel can be distracted."
In his semifinal match against Wood, a junior at Oklahoma State and a former U.S. Junior Amateur champion, Crosby came out of sand traps for pars on the last three holes. Lindley, to some as much of a surprise as Crosby, went against Bob Lewis Jr., a Warren, Ohio executive who was thrashed by Sutton in the finals last year. Lindley, a 24-year-old from Fountain Valley, Calif., who quit his job as an aerospace engineer last April to concentrate on golf, knocked off Lewis 3 and 2.
On Sunday morning both players were erratic as Lindley worked out a one-up lead at lunchtime. In the early afternoon, as his fans sighed, Crosby was all nerves and bad shots, playing the first four holes in four over par and falling 4-down as Lindley kept rifling low tee shots down the middle. Crosby's only hope was for Lindley to start making mistakes, and that is what happened.
He bogeyed the 9th, 12th and 13th holes, and suddenly Crosby was only one-down. Lindley rolled it in from 15 feet for a birdie at the 14th hole to go back to 2-up, then birdied the par-3 15th from 10 feet. Now Crosby was eight feet away and needing a birdie himself. If he missed, he would be dormied and the match would be all but over. He fingered his medal. His mother picked up the pace on the beads. The ball went in.
Lindley faded the rest of the way, making a big mistake by leaving his approach short and in a bunker and bogeying the 16th hole, as Crosby sank a 10-foot putt for his par 5. Then at the 17th, Lindley put his second into a sand trap, caught a bad lie and eventually made a double-bogey 6, after Crosby had salvaged a bogey following a wild tee shot. The match was even.
Both players parred the 18th, Lindley missing a 22-footer while Crosby was short from 14 feet. He tapped in and all but raced to the 1st tee to begin the playoff. A few minutes later, he was the U.S. Amateur champion, and as he hugged his caddie, he was screaming, "Wake me up, it's a dream!"