AS HIS FATHER hada gift for singing, Nathaniel Crosby has a gift for talking. When the youngerCrosby won the 1981 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, fouryears after Bing's death on a Madrid golf course, Dave Marr of ABC did aninterview with the then 19-year-old Crosby that went on forever, even thoughMarr's questions were short and to the point. Nathaniel has a black-and-whitepicture from the '75 Junior World Golf Championship—played annually at TorreyPines, site of this week's U.S. Open, and other San Diego courses—that showshim from the back and Bing from the front, but even from behind you can tellthat the kid's doing the talking. Nathaniel's wife, Sheila, has been known tosay, "He can talk, can't he?" Jackie Burke, the former Masters winnerand Crosby's godfather, signed a book for Nathaniel with these words: "Yourfather left me with a hell of a job." As they are both plus-4 talkers, youcan imagine their practice-tee sessions. In an act of self-protection, Crosbydoesn't pick up ringing landline phones in his high-ceilinged house at LostTree, the South Florida development where Jack Nicklaus also lives. A bad dayfor him would be one in which he lost his iPhone charger.
This is an article from the June 16, 2008 issue
Some ofNathaniel's language is straight out of Bing's performing heyday. (Bing'scompetitive golf highlight came in 1950, when he played in the British Amateuron the Old Course, losing in the first round to a St. Andrews carpenter as20,000 people followed them.) In conversation Nathaniel will refer to boldfacenames from yesteryear (Jimmy Durante would be a prime example) as "hotdogs." Find another 46-year-old anywhere who uses hot dog that way. IfCrosby wants to tell you something off the record, he'll say, "I wouldn'twant to say this out loud." For angry, he'll use cross. When was the lasttime 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 Hopeoff camera, Jack Benny never—worked blue, Bing would say he "got so trashcan," and Nathaniel uses that phrase today.
Even when he'snot using phrases from the golden age of radio, Nathaniel Crosby's speech isout of a time warp: American college life, circa 1982. If Crosby says, of noone in particular, "She lost her amateur status," it may have nothingto do with a female golfer cashing a tournament check. Regarding his own effortto become a reinstated amateur—he played three years of professional golf aftergraduating from the University of Miami in 1984—Crosby says it was easy: "Ihit a bucket of balls for a USGA guy, and he says, 'You're right. You're nopro.'" It's a line he's been using for years, but he tells it fresh, and hetells it clean. Bing's son does not work trash can.
The game of golfis Crosby's second-favorite subject, eclipsed only by the business of golf. In1988, at age 26, after playing the European tour for three years, Crosby becamethe president of Toney Penna Golf, an equipment manufacturer. ("In threeyears 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 atNicklaus Golf Equipment, later at Orlimar, where he was a pioneer in directmarketing through infomercials. In 1997, Crosby says, Orlimar had $1.5 millionin gross sales; in 1998, his first year as president, it had $103 million ingross sales and $13 million in earnings. Unless you have an MBA and a lot oftime, don't get him started. Suffice it to say that nobody can analyze the rateof returns of infomercial fairway-wood sales with more enthusiasm than Crosby.Regarding the proliferation of those half-hour, middle-of-the-night ads onhigh-numbered cable channels, Crosby says, "The infomercial business iskept alive by every guy in a garage with an invention, a patent and adream."
Soon afterbecoming the president of Toney Penna Golf, Crosby went to Asia for 11 dayswith Bob Hope. By day on this road show, Hope and Crosby would play golf andmeet with highly placed government finance and trade ministers—too highlyplaced to be useful to Crosby—and the occasional golf distributor. At nightHope would perform, working Crosby into his show and teaching him how todeliver 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-amtournament bearing his name. "They wished each other the best every day oftheir lives," Crosby says. Hope paid Nathaniel $10,000 to accompany him onthat 1989 trip. Why? "Because Bob Hope was a very kind man and a greatfriend of my father's," Crosby says. "And because he had never spentmuch time with me." When Crosby won the Amateur, Hope, watching on apro-shop TV in Minneapolis, cried like a baby, according to an assistant pro inthe shop that day.
Crosby wasintroduced to golf by his father, who made 13 holes in one in his life, acomment on both the crooner's skill and how much he played. For years Bing andNathaniel, the last of his seven children (four from his first marriage, threefrom 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." WhenNathaniel, at 15, won the club championship against the menfolk at BurlingameCountry Club in suburban San Francisco, where they lived, Bing went home to hiswife, Kathryn, and said, "Today is the happiest day of my life." Yourguess to her response is likely correct.
Despite Bing'srole, 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 Irishnanny, Bridget, who was a lefty and a pro, and it was Bridget who taught me thegrip," Crosby says. "She died when I was 11. My daughter Bridget isnamed for her." Nathaniel and Sheila have six children in their house offJack Nicklaus Drive, four from Nathaniel's first marriage, two from hers, allbetween 12 and 17. On weekends the kids often bring friends to the house inNorth Palm Beach. Yes, it's bedlam.
Crosby is amember of the nearby Seminole Golf Club, the winter hangout for a small knot offormer USGA presidents. To be, like Crosby, a former U.S. Amateur winner whoplays golf for pleasure and not for money is to have a heightened status withinthe USGA hierarchy. He sometimes speaks at the annual U.S. Amateur dinner—hespeaks some years at the Masters amateur dinner too—and in the USGA sanctumsanctorum, Crosby's two moments in the USGA sun are part of organizationallore. The first and best known is his win in the '81 Amateur at Olympic (forwhich he received congratulatory notes from Fred Astaire and Gerald Ford, amongother hot dogs). The second came less than a year later, at the '82 U.S. Openat Pebble Beach, where Crosby nipped by a shot another college player, CoreyPavin, to win the medal for low amateur.
Why are thesesuccesses legendary in the halls of Golf House in Far Hills, N.J.? Forstarters, Crosby was very young and nothing like an amateur superstar. At timeson the Miami golf team he played as the second or third or fourth man. Thenthere's the matter of where he did what he did. He won the Amateur whilespending his nights in his childhood bed, with a window facing the five-acreparcel where Bridget the nanny first showed him the grip. He won his U.S. Openmedal for low amateur in a place, Pebble Beach, that was like a second home tohim, on a legendary links that will forever be associated with his father. Andthen there's how he did what he did, coming back from two down with three toplay in the Amateur, making a 9 in the second round of the Open but stillmaking the cut. Karma city.
Don'tmisunderstand: Crosby was very good, and he was often the best player on hisMiami team. But he was never anything like a Pavin or a Brad Faxon or a JodieMudd, the can't-miss kids of that era. Herbert Warren Wind, the least ruthlessand 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 atleast a thousand better amateur golfers in the country." Crosby's one-twoUSGA punch—the '81 Amateur, the '82 U.S. Open—has to be a prime example of whatMichael Murphy, the author of Golf in the Kingdom, calls "a peakexperience," an attempt to explain an athlete's ability to rise to theoccasion.
And on this airysubject, and on almost no other, you cannot get the plus-4 talker to talk. It'seasy to see Crosby as Jack Fleck, winning the 1955 U.S. Open over Ben Hogan atOlympic; Chris Patton winning the 1989 U.S. Amateur at Merion; Hilary Lunkewinning the 2003 U.S. Open at Pumpkin Ridge. To see Crosby among the winnerswho came out of the blue. Crosby has a different take. His view is that heplayed the shots and won the hardware. What more is there to it than that?
For some golfpeople, though, Crosby's two USGA medals are an enjoyable and enduring sportingmystery. Sandy Tatum, who was Crosby's captain on a World Amateur team, hasbeen puzzling over it for 25 years. How did Crosby play his best in the placesmost meaningful to him? "It's the darnedest thing," says Tatum, aformer USGA president who witnessed both events and lived for decades in SanFrancisco.
Of a half-dozenpeople asked recently about Crosby's USGA feats, it was a novelist—and howfitting is that?—who came closest to taking the lid off the subject. J. MichaelVeron is a writer of golf fiction, a Louisiana lawyer, a scratch player, a USGAcommittee member and a friend of Crosby's. Speaking of those two weeks inCrosby's golfing life, Veron says, "I don't know what tune Bing was hummingin 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. (BobHope would be pleased.) Crosby says, "My father sang White Christmas. Mysister 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 seriesDallas, about an obnoxious Texas oil family, and is the answer to theubiquitous 1980 question, "Who Shot J.R.?"
Somebody, uponlearning that Nathaniel's father was Bing, once said to Nathaniel, "That'sas 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 thebraces, in some of the Bing Crosby Christmas specials. (He appeared in 11 ofthem.) Tens of millions of people watched those shows, when TV was dominated bythree networks and boredom was a way of life. There was a vast built-inaudience for any news about Nathaniel Crosby, and then he went out and won anational golf title. No modern winner of the U.S. Amateur ever got moreattention in victory, except maybe Tiger Woods, and then only when he won itfor a second time (and then a third).
At the '81Amateur, Crosby defeated Willie Wood, then one of the best college players inthe country, in the semifinal. In the final, as Crosby came roaring backagainst Brian Lindley, a 24-year-old aerospace engineer, he'd pump his fistsafter good shots, drawing this hilarious hiss from the English commentatorPeter Alliss of ABC: "I don't know if dear old dad would approve ofthat."
The next year, atthe U.S. Open at Pebble Beach—the one Tom Watson won with his chip-in on the71st hole—Crosby provided his own drama. His big fat seaside 9 came on the 14thhole of the Friday round. He followed that by playing the last four holes inone under to shoot a 73 and make the cut by two. In the fourth round, leakingoil 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 standingbeside the 18th green with his arms crossed. "Retrospectively, that roundhas become way more important to me," Crosby says. "Back then I thoughtthere would be a lot of that."
He graduated fromMiami and gave the pro game his best shot. Crosby had a good head for golf andfuel in his tank. He worked hard. But innate golfing talent, at the levelneeded to grind it out week after week and make a mark as a touring pro, wasanother matter. The week at Olympic was from somewhere else. The Pebble weekwas too.
Crosby believesin courses for horses, which is why, like everyone else, his picks for thisweek 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 andNathaniel still uses, "land like a butterfly with sore feet." The highlong-iron was one of the secrets to Nicklaus's four wins in the nationalchampionship, and Nathaniel and his dad often spent Father's Day watching thefinal round of the U.S. Open on TV, rooting for Big Jack. When Nicklaus heldhis first Memorial tournament in 1976, Bing showed up to help launch it.
Bing Crosby isone of the patron saints of the USGA. He and Hope won the Bob Jones Award, theUSGA's highest honor, in 1970, and the USGA museum has had exhibits honoringCrosby for, among other things, inventing the celebrity pro-am and making somany 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 Fegolf 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 Palmeractually continued the movement that Crosby and Hope began: spreading thegospel of golf to America's burgeoning middle class through their shows,interviews, movies, publicity stills and tournaments. Sooner or later, Crosby'senthusiasm for golf showed up in everything he did.
"You can'tquantify what Bing Crosby did for golf, but you can't overstate it either,"Fay says. The 1971 Crosby, with the tournament's namesake providing thecommentary 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 whatsingle thing has given me the most gratification in my long and sometimespedestrian career, I would have to say it is this tournament." Rememberingthat quote the other day, Nathaniel was struck by his father's use ofpedestrian.
In his privatelife, many of Bing's most trusted friendships—notably with George Coleman, awell-placed and well-known golf personage—came through the game. Nathanielinherited the friendship. When he was at Miami he played dozens of rounds withColeman at Seminole, where Coleman was the longtime president. Hope was anothertrusted friend. Above all the other things they were together, Bob Hope andBing Crosby were golf partners, Nathaniel says.
Today, ifNathaniel 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. TheCrosby name was taken off the Pebble Beach tournament in 1985 by Kathryn Crosbyafter she and the tournament's board of directors got into a dispute over whowould run the tournament and dispense its invitations. Nathaniel didn't wanthis father's name withdrawn, but when the fight was coming to a boil he wasplaying the European tour and not in a position to do anything to simmer thingsdown. "My mom and I are close now," he says, "but that was a toughtime."
For years, muchof Nathaniel's identity was wrapped up in the Crosby. After his father's deathin 1977, Nathaniel, at 16, became the official tournament host. He remembersgetting 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 afavor." Tom Weiskopf! The man was a golfing god to the young Crosby.Nathaniel served on the board that runs the tournament until about five yearsago. 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 nothurt. He knew what the Clambake had turned into: a business. His father'sgolfing get-together is now in the netherworld, with yesterday's fog.
The demise of theold Crosby—despite the spectacular setting, the AT&T Pebble Beach NationalPro-Am has become a second-tier event with little star power—is a painfulreminder to Nathaniel that his father's fame is fading. "When they wereboth alive, Dad was a lot more famous than Bob Hope," Crosby says. "ButDad's name, image and likeness have not been promoted aggressively." Thatmay sound cold and calculating, but it's also true. He hopes there will somedaybe another Crosby pro-am, maybe on the Champions tour. Nathaniel Crosby, aself-described marketing man and entrepreneur, sees how expertly the names,images and likenesses of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra are marketed today. Hewould like to see dozens of Crosby golf courses and Crosby restaurants. He'dlike to see stores and websites dedicated to selling Crosby albums and moviesand radio shows and TV specials. (According to one study Nathaniel cites, thename most associated with Christmas, after Santa Claus, is Bing Crosby.) Butthe licensing of the Crosby name is controlled by Kathryn Crosby, who has herown ideas, and Nathaniel's business focus these days is elsewhere. He isimmersed in launching an all-purpose golf advertising agency, where he plans touse the lessons from his Orlimar experience—he calls it "the 1-800,direct-response, profitable advertising model"—to sell and deliver allthings golf: clubs, devices, real estate, vacations, you name it. His fatherwas an astute and innovative businessman and a careful spender. Nathaniel wouldlike to think he's exactly the same.
During a recentlunch at a roadside café near his home, a TV played an infomercial forSkyCaddie, and Crosby made educated guesses about its particulars: who shot it,how the device was priced, where the owners were buying their media. Later, theRay Charles classic Georgia on My Mind played over the restaurant speakers.Crosby listened to Charles's raspy voice and distinctive timing, backed by astring section and a choir of angelic '50s-style singers, and said, "Dadwould have loved this arrangement." In the recording Charles gave meaningto every word and phrase. Bing did the same thing.
The lives of twoof Bing's four sons with Dixie Lee, his first wife, ended in suicide, and nowall four are dead. Nathaniel knew his much-older half brothers, but never livedwith them. Between Bing's first family and his second there was "somethinglike 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 ahappy experience. Bing was 54 when he married 23-year-old Kathryn Grant in1957, and he was 58 when Nathaniel was born. If Bing were alive today he'd be105. He was easily old enough to have been Nathaniel's grandfather.
But he hadenergy, 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 andinvestor, had an early interest in nature and often went on hunting and fishingtrips with his father. Mary, who lives in Malibu with her husband and childrenand who still acts occasionally, spent time with her father on various overseasfather-daughter vacations, and Bing played an active role in getting herstarted as an actress. Nathaniel and his father were often on the golf coursetogether, or at Candlestick Park, watching baseball or football, surrounded byother paying spectators. Bing wore his celebrity so comfortably that he couldgo anywhere and not be bothered. Nathaniel remembers going to a 49ers game withhis father, settling into their seats and then hearing his father say,"I'll be right back." He went to the field, sang the national anthemand returned immediately to his seat and to his son.
When Bing joinedNathaniel at the World Junior at Torrey Pines in '77, he brought a big, clumsybox camera to the course, intent on getting a shot of Nathaniel and BobbyClampett together. "Dad was sure that Clampett would be the nextNicklaus," Nathaniel says. As for Nathaniel's golf, Bing got a kick out ofit. 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 amateurgolf." 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 atTorrey Pines that year, among many other places, he watched Nathaniel play froma fairway away. He gave Nathaniel space. "I had a great father,"Nathaniel says. "The three of us [children] each got what we needed fromhim." Nathaniel got golf—and words.
Father and sonboth loved golf in Spain, and while playing in Europe, Nathaniel took a specialinterest in the stylish play of Seve Ballesteros and José María Olaàbal. Hecan tell you the tournaments at which he finished ahead of them. When he playedin the 1986 Spanish Open at the La Moraleja Golf Club he experienced the firstmigraine 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 thecourse where his father played his last round and took his last breath,Nathaniel Crosby sees as a coincidence and nothing more. Bing Crosby's lastwords were, "That was a great game of golf, fellas."
Except for thephrases he borrows from his father, there's nothing about Nathaniel thatreadily brings to mind Bing. He doesn't have his father's cool, mellow speakingvoice or his lively eyes or prominent ears or slim physique. The heels ofNathaniel'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'shappy 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. "Sheilaand I were both on the receiving end of our divorces, and we were among thewalking wounded," he says, meaning that neither initiated their breakups.He's admirably open. "But we've figured out a way to make this whole BradyBunch thing work." Now that his home life is whole again, Nathaniel islooking to return to competitive golf and, more significant, get back into thebusiness 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 winanother U.S. Amateur, but he'd like to have a shot at a U.S. Senior Amateurwhen he turns 55.
The garage at hisNorth Palm Beach house is filled with golf clubs, surfboards, fishingequipment, tennis rackets and all the other accoutrements of the affluentFlorida life. Except at Christmastime you won't hear much of Bing's music inthe house. Bing's legacy shows up in other ways (some of Nathaniel's kids areplaying golf too), and almost every day Nathaniel is moved to recall his fatherin some specific way. Maybe you remember Bing's old Minute Maid spots. WhenNathaniel drops his voice and recites his father's famous tagline—"there'sno doubt about it"—you'd swear Bing Crosby were still alive.
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