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The Legacy
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
June 16, 2008
Nathaniel Crosby, the son of one of the game's most famous ambassadors, parlayed two special weeks into a lifetime exemption
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June 16, 2008

The Legacy

Nathaniel Crosby, the son of one of the game's most famous ambassadors, parlayed two special weeks into a lifetime exemption

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"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 Nathaniel didn't want his father's name withdrawn, but when the fight was coming to a boil he was playing the European tour and not in a position to do anything to simmer things down.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 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."

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