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On The Road To Success...Perhaps

June 14, 1982
June 14, 1982

Table of Contents
June 14, 1982

The French Open
NCAA Championships
NBA Playoffs
The Mad Hatter
Nathaniel Crosby
Baseball

On The Road To Success...Perhaps

Bing Crosby's son Nathaniel is the reigning U.S. Amateur golf champ, but his game might not be up to par

A morning as perfect as this one should be preserved in Lucite, if not fine crystal. The day has come up dazzling—mild, with a faint trace of pine and sweet myrtle carried on the wind. The golf course is turning a lusher, late-spring green, and on both sides of the fairways are dunes of soft white sand. They are there to threaten the golfers, but they carry no menace on a day like this. The threesome, each man attired in the pastels of golf, ambles along, not caring about scores, chatting idly about swings and techniques. If one were to stand off to the side and watch these golfers, for sure this thought would arise: Some people are born to the game, among them the junior member of the threesome—The Young Man Who Has Everything.

This is an article from the June 14, 1982 issue Original Layout

The Young Man Who Has Everything has, of course, all the strokes. He also is lean and tanned to the proper shade, which is to say not too dark. His hair is perfectly sculptured and falls softly back into place after a wind ruffles it. Though he's only 20 years old, he seems completely self-assured, a trait that will likely mark him for the rest of his life.

Dick Home, a member of the threesome, comfortably thick-waisted and balding, watches the Young Man Who Etc. stroll along the fairway and nods appreciatively. "That there boy is 20 growin' on 35, as they say," he says. "And I swear, he already knows what he can do. He can't sing like his ol' daddy, and he can't act like his sister or older brother—and he knows he doesn't want to get into show business. And while he has been handed just about everything that a body could ever want, he has discovered the secret of this here life: You can't inherit a good golf game."

Thus does one come upon Nathaniel Patrick Crosby, Bing's boy, on a sparkling day outside Charleston, S.C. as he strives to develop about the only thing he didn't inherit. But with respect to his golf, he's much more than just Bing's boy. He's the U.S. Amateur champion—a remarkable achievement for anybody's boy—and, casual as he appears to be about his game, he's dead serious in his ambition to improve and become a golfer of consistent excellence. It's a painstaking and, lately, painful undertaking.

Right now, it seems there are too few flashes of brilliance and too many days of mediocre and occasionally dumb play. Enough to cause irritation but not yet despair. The Young Man Who Etc. wears his embarrassments politely. "I suppose it's a good thing for me to fall on my fanny so soon after winning the Amateur," he says. "Maybe if I'd gone on winning, I'd have been awfully hard to live with by now." Then he smiles, a bit ruefully, indicating that, well, he couldn't ever really be hard to live with. "I guess that maybe a more gradual success will be the best thing for me."

It will have to be. Ever since he won the Amateur last September in San Francisco, 1 up in 37 holes over Brian Lindley of Fountain Valley, Calif., Crosby has done a disappearing act. In his last seven PGA tournaments, he hasn't once made the cut. In the North-South Amateur at Pinehurst a couple of weeks ago, he was eliminated 4 and 3 on the first day. In the NCAA tournament that immediately followed, in which he played for his University of Miami team, Crosby shot a 4-over-par 292, good for a six-way tie for 32nd place.

Then he was off to England for last week's British Amateur, where he was defeated in the first round by Briton David Gilford, 4 and 3. Next week he'll play in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. There, Crosby will be more than just the U.S. Amateur champion making his well-earned appearance in the game's most prestigious tournament. Pebble Beach is the course where the final round of the tournament that bears his father's name is played each winter. In many ways, Pebble is home for Crosby, the place where the campaign that may or may not pay off began.

Emulating his dad, Crosby is forever playing new courses, studying the game and expecting that someday, somehow, everything will fall into place. At almost every stop along the way, family friends are waiting to help. Here in South Carolina it's Home, an insurance executive and local amateur champion, and Raymond Finch, chairman of the board of Wild Dunes, the vast new development on the Isle of Palms near Charleston, on whose Tom Fazio-designed course the threesome is playing.

Midway through the 14th hole, Crosby offers a crumb of knowledge gleaned a few weeks before in one of his college courses. "Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Gold-Bug, is set right here," he says. "Poe used to hang out in this part of the country."

Sure enough, looming up on the right, enormously gnarled and lumpy, is Wild Dunes' official Gold-Bug Tree, as it's listed on the course maps. It's a very old oak, so full of pits and hollows from lightning bolts that it could hold a couple of thousand badly hit golf balls. "It was from 'way on up in that very tree," says Finch, "that old whatchamacallit dangled the gold beetle through the eye of the skull to locate the buried treasure, remember?"

But wasn't Poe's tree actually a tulip tree? And wasn't the setting Sullivan's Island and not the Isle of Palms?

"Well, I mean it was fiction," says Finch, "and so this here is the tree in question."

Settings like Wild Dunes and companions like Home and Finch are what Crosby now seeks out. His choice of friends is catholic, some pals of his father, some closer to his own age. But age clearly doesn't matter to him; what counts is that all of them are real people.

He's deliberately putting show business at a distance, and he shuns glitter. Indeed, in an unconscious reach for the persona he wants most, Crosby has taken on a countrified Southern accent, full of mellowed-down words and softly rounded vowels, a vastly different language from the one he left home with. His sentences now are flavored with gentle ruralisms: In characterizing his feelings for a favorite caddie, Fletcher Gaines, Crosby says, "Ah'd lay down in the road for him." At Wild Dunes he describes for his friends the 15-foot birdie putt on the 1st hole of the sudden-death playoff that won him the Amateur by saying, "Man, ah cruised that sucker on in there."

The Southern accent is sort of ironic, he allows, because Bing enunciated clearly, with no discernible accent, and Nathaniel's mother, Kathryn Grant Crosby, went to great lengths to erase all traces of the Southwest from her speech. Kathryn, as most of the fan mag world knows, was Golden Girl of the Texas League when she was a freshman at the University of Texas, long before she met Bing. "But later, after she and Dad married," says Nathaniel, "she took special classes in diction at Paramount to lose the drawl—and now everything she says is carefully enunciated and well rounded, in pear-shaped tones. Only very rarely will she slip with, say, a 'hadn't oughta.' "

And so, slowly and far from the rest of his family, a new Nathaniel is emerging. He will be, when he finally gets himself all finished, very much his own man. He can say, with no trace of self-consciousness, "A lot of my golfing mistakes are flat due to immaturity, but I'm slowly getting over that." He'll keep getting over it, he figures—"Since I'm only 20, I've got a head start on a lot of them"—for a while yet. He hopes to turn pro, but he has no intention of rushing into it. "When I go out there as a pro, I'll be ready," he says. "I figure I'm a good three years away now. If I'm ready then, I'll go. Otherwise, I won't. Nothing says that one has to do something."

There is, he says, a Crosby family maxim, handed down from the old man: " 'It's one thing to be well off, but quite another to be well off and do nothing but sit on your ass.' We were brought up to believe that one must constantly be learning and improving, seeking to become something."

Now, at Wild Dunes, the threesome plays the last two holes, needling each other, sporting Southernisms and lore that Crosby will surely use in years to come. One can see him mentally filing them all away.

Horne has been chattering throughout the game. Now he hunches over a putt, concentrating fiercely, and from behind him, Finch growls, "Hit it wif yer jawbone; that oughta do it."

"That's called putting the mouth-wedge on him," Crosby says gleefully.

In the soft cadences of Southern golf, the players have eliminated the word "good"; they recognize a good putt merely by nodding and murmuring, "Putt, Crosby," as one might greet someone on a nice day with a laconic, "Mornin'." The threesome finishes out the round, and Finch has a final word of counsel for his young friend. "Allus remember," he says, "that education and experience win out ever' time against ignorance and superstition. Or somethin' like that."

After a shower at one of Finch's new condos, Crosby suits up for the 200-mile drive to Pinehurst to practice for the North-South Open: jeans and a pair of hand-made Tony Lama anteater-skin cowboy boots—another sign of the countrification of Nathaniel Crosby. He also favors big, oval, cowboy-style belt buckles and Western-cut sport coats. "I just prefer this sort of look and these people," he says. "In fact, you know my idea of the perfect place to live? Colorado."

But for now he lives mostly on the road: The car is a spanking new Camaro with California plates. It's dull black, with black tires and black interior and dark tinted windows. He bought the car for $11,800 in San Francisco and drove it across country. On this day the rear seats are folded down and the back is stuffed with two golf bags and almost two complete sets of clubs, a couple of lumpy suitcases, more cowboy boots and six or seven garment bags plump with clothes on hangers. "I just seem to spend my time living this way," he says. Changing clothes in a country club parking lot while standing beside the upswung hatchback of his Camaro is routine stuff. "But this time the reason for all this junk is that I'm packed for Wild Dunes, then two tournaments at Pinehurst, then for the British Amateur—had to include some warm clothes—then back to this country and on to the U.S. Open. Look at this: I've got an outfit in here for every possible situation."

At a 7-Eleven just outside Charleston, he supplements his traveling gear with a Styrofoam ice chest and a bag of ice, a monster-size sack of potato chips and a six-pack of Mountain Dew. "Only way to fly," he says as the Camaro roars away and hunkers down into the highway, the way this model will. The bag of potato chips is torn open and wedged between the gearshift and the dashboard, where it can be reached from either seat. Soda is popped open. Then Crosby fishes around in the storage compartment between the seats and pulls out a tape cassette. "Want to hear some music?" he asks. "One of my good ones. The Mills Brothers."

The Mills Brothers? One thinks about the "why" of that particular choice for a long moment and then realizes: Of course, Bing would have approved.

"They're one of my favorites," Crosby says. "When I'm alone, going from one tournament to another, I'll put on a tape and roll up the windows and crank up the volume and sing along with them—and I mean loud—until I get hoarse."

Time now to establish certain truths: Bing Crosby's youngest kid can't sing a lick. Nor does he care to. The Crosby children were encouraged from the start to seek their own paths. "My sister, Mary Frances, knew that she wanted to become an actress and she went for it in an absolute straight line," Nathaniel says. "My older brother, Harry Lillis, has so many interests that it's incredible. He's an actor and a fine musician and composer. Lately, he's been a student of finance—going for his MBA at Fordham. He knows more about my dad's estate than any of us. And I knew as early as 13 what I wanted. We were what I guess you'd call a solid family; at first, Mom took a dim view of my ambitions—'If you'd just take half of that golf energy and channel it into your studies....' she'd say. But she finally accepted it, and now she's very supporting."

The Mills Brothers concert is postponed in favor of the Nathaniel Crosby Story—which, in view of the fact that the subject is only 20 years old, fills the miles between Charleston, S.C. and Pinehurst, N.C.

"I vaguely remember chipping and putting in our backyard in the Bay Area, in Hillsborough," he says, "using a cut-down, 18-inch Ben Hogan driver for everything. Somewhere in the house there's a picture of me holding a golf club. Everyone says I was about three years old when it was taken, but I think that's too young. It had to be sometime after that."

One of Crosby's real golf secrets, never before told, he says, was Bridget Brennan. "She was my Irish nanny. She loved me and I loved her very much. But the neat thing was: She had been a golfer back in Ireland. Not only that, but a lefthanded golfer. I understand that the family had been interviewing potential nannies, and I suppose that they were all well qualified and all that—but when my dad heard that Bridget was a lefthanded golfer, well, that did it. He flat hired her on the spot. And then, patiently, there in our house and in the backyard, she taught me what she knew—how to stand properly, and the correct thumb-down-the-shaft grip, all just right. I play righthanded, of course, but proper use of the left hand is important in your swing. I'll never forget her."

There was plenty of other help. Crosby's godfather is Jackie Burke Jr., the 1956 Masters champion. He provided a set of cut-down clubs as well as advice. From age seven to 15, Crosby studied under Maurice VerBrugge, the pro at the Burlingame Country Club. Indeed, it was VerBrugge who took Crosby in for a tune-up and 10,000-mile check before last year's Amateur. And since age 15, there has been Toney Penna, oldtime touring pro and master club maker, one of Bing's closest friends, whom Nathaniel regards as nothing less than a wizard. More than anyone else, it has been Penna who has overseen the golfing care and feeding of Nathaniel Crosby, and it was Penna, now a pro in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who was the inspiration for Crosby's accepting a golf scholarship to attend college down the road in Miami.

Crosby developed into enough of a schoolboy whiz that he won the Burlingame Club championship (for the first of three times) at 15. He managed to accomplish this with Bing skulking along, pretending to be invisible just on the edge of everyone's vision on the adjoining fairways, flitting cartoon-fashion from tree to tree. "He didn't want to make me nervous," Nathaniel says. "And what he did was make me nervous." At 17, young Crosby qualified for the U.S. Junior by shooting a course-record 66 at Johnsonville, S.C. and went on to become a co-medalist. In his first year at Miami he made all-state and led the Hurricanes to victory in the Florida State Intercollegiates. The same year, just after he turned 18, he won the Las Vegas Rebel Invitational—still the only collegiate tournament he has won. But if his medal play is up and down, his match play is much better. As of last week, Crosby had won 21 of his last 27 matches, not counting those in the U.S. Amateur.

After a couple of hours, the Camaro ghosts into the parking lot of a backwoods hamburger stand. And over cheeseburgers and coffee, Crosby, looking younger than any of the high school kids hanging out there, recounts the rest of his life like an old man harking back to some half-forgotten pioneer era.

"There was a time," he says, "when I wanted to be anybody, any-body, other than Bing Crosby's son. I was 13. It happens to kids in show business families. Remember his Christmas show?"

Sure, that yuletide special had a 38-year run on the air and spanned two families for Bing. And it effectively drilled Minute Maid orange juice into the national subconscious.

"Well, as you know, Dad would bring the family on," Nathaniel says, "and I don't know if you ever noticed it or not—it certainly doesn't matter—but I tried so hard to act disinterested. I tried to look as if I'd just wandered in from the street and didn't know any of these folks. I definitely didn't want to be related to them. I tried to act disinterested through all of the songs and patter. I was using it as a defense; there was a special reason for it. What I dreaded, nothing I hated worse, was going to school the day after the special had appeared on television.

"I'd walk into class and everybody would go, 'Ohhhhhh, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas....' And then they'd go, 'Buh-buh-buh-booo.' Oh, boy, I got a lot of that. All through my childhood. And years later, when I'd be playing golf, minding my own business, someone would say, 'Pssst! It's Bing Crosby's kid. Let's see how he hits it.' Or they'd say, 'I hope the kid can sing better than he can play golf.' And then, of course, I'd get the buh-buh-buh-booo."

But Crosby seems to have survived all that. He still gets it, but he has survived it. And he has his goals all in a neat row.

"I'll definitely finish college," he says. "In...um—who knows—the class of '85? It's slow going, with a few incompletes spotted here and there. I'm a political science major. But, see, the thing is: I want to be a well-rounded individual—that is, I don't want to just play golf and then one day find that I've grown up to be a dumb old man."

This would seem astonishing to those who, in 1978, saw a 16-year-old Nathaniel step in to replace his dad as host of the Crosby. After Bing's death on Oct. 14, 1977—hours after shooting an 85 on a course outside Madrid—there was no question in the family but that the Crosby would go on, and that Nathaniel would host it in his dad's place and do a splendid job. "Well, it was sort of being thrust into instant maturity," says Crosby, who has turned down big-money offers to enlarge and enrich the tournament. "I'd never sell it out to anyone who comes up and says, 'I'll give you this much money,' " he says. "The pros and all the players enjoy it just the way it is, and that's the way it's going to stay."

But never mind The Clambake, it's playing the game that counts to someone like Penna, perhaps the only true survivor who goes back to the beginning with Bing. "You know, Bing himself was overpro'd," Penna says. "But still, when Nathaniel came along, he was high enough on the kid to recognize that he'd need some pro help in teaching the boy. Bing called me in Florida and said, 'I want you to come out and take a look at this kid of mine. He's something else.' When I got to the West Coast, Bing had gone off to London to play the Palladium and then go on to Spain. We spent maybe two hours playing together, Nathaniel and I. And I jotted down some notes for when Bing got back...."

Penna stops and sighs. No one has ever looked more the old golf pro than he does at this moment with his seamed, tanned face and silver hair. "But, you see, Bing never got back," he says. "He came back in a coffin."

And now, with Nathaniel under his wing, Penna finds that "the boy wants to be a winner and, of course, that's it. There are a lot of beautiful players on the tour today who aren't winners. Now, maybe Nathaniel isn't hungry enough just yet—but look at his win in the Amateur. Listen, that wasn't any fluke. He beat Frank Fuhrer of our Walker Cup team in the first round, and in the semis he beat Willie Wood, a Walker Cup alternate who is acknowledged to be one of the finest college players in this country. And then he scrambled his way to victory in the final. It's his attitude that's his biggest asset right now."

And who better to talk of attitude than Mom? Listen to the per-fect-ly enunciated tones of Kathryn Grant Crosby.

"Bing always told Nathaniel this: Gentlemen play golf," she says. "It's a gentleman's game." She pauses for dramatic effect. "And if you aren't a gentleman when you start, after the crushing events of the game, you surely become one. It's that sort of game. As for Nathaniel's turning professional, it's up to him, of course. I must say, it would please his dad so much if he were to finish college, and Nathaniel has assured me that he intends to do just that.

"Nothing came on a silver platter for Nathaniel," she goes on. "It was difficult for him, being three years younger than Harry. Perhaps because of that, Nathaniel developed such depth. There was a time, you know, when Nathaniel was chunky and, well, awkward. And I felt so sorry for him. Still, it was then he found he had to earn the right to play with his father. And earn it he did."

Mrs. Crosby talks of the recent auction in which she sold a lot of Bing memorabilia, part of a plan by which she hopes to condense the contents of six houses to two. There was a rumor that she was selling everything out from under the kids. Actually, she says, "The children told me what I couldn't sell. I consulted Harry on some things, Mary Frances on others—and I used Nathaniel as my golf expert. Bing left 36 complete sets of clubs, plus countless items such as solid silver putters and hand-inlaid putters of precious woods. That sort of thing."

"Know what my dad's alltime favorite trophy was?" Nathaniel says of the memorabilia. "It was actually not the Oscar he won in 1944 for Father O'Malley in Going My Way. No. It was the trophy he got when his horse, Meadow Court, won the Irish Derby in 1965."

It's early evening at Pinehurst, and Crosby is at dinner talking of his plans for next year. "I'm going to red-shirt myself," he says. "I'm going to take the year off from playing college golf, and I'm going to work on my body. You know, the Nautilus machines. And exercise. And running. I'm going to run like crazy. Build up stronger legs and huge arms. I'm 5'10" now and weight 160 or so. But I've got to have more strength if I'm going to make my master plan work."

Penna leaps to mind—and his saying that there's "nothing the kid can't accomplish. And he's going to play much better as he gets bigger and stronger."

"Allus remember," Crosby says, sipping a beer, "that education and experience win out ever' time against ignorance and superstition."

Sounds like he has been saying it all his life.

PHOTOTWO PHOTOSNathaniel and his brother Harry played together in the '82 Crosby. Kathryn holds a juicy item that wasn't put up for auction.PHOTOPenna eyes the extent of Crosby's shoulder tilt.PHOTOTwo pros at a Miami club give Nathaniel the heave.PHOTONathaniel studies his branch of learning.