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
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.
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his father's name withdrawn, but when the fight was coming to a boil he was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
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 café 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 José María Olazábal. 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."