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The Legacy
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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AS HIS FATHER had a gift for singing, Nathaniel Crosby has a gift for talking. When the younger Crosby won the 1981 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, four years after Bing's death on a Madrid golf course, Dave Marr of ABC did an interview with the then 19-year-old Crosby that went on forever, even though Marr's questions were short and to the point. Nathaniel has a black-and-white picture from the '75 Junior World Golf Championship—played annually at Torrey Pines, site of this week's U.S. Open, and other San Diego courses—that shows him from the back and Bing from the front, but even from behind you can tell that the kid's doing the talking. Nathaniel's wife, Sheila, has been known to say, "He can talk, can't he?" Jackie Burke, the former Masters winner and Crosby's godfather, signed a book for Nathaniel with these words: "Your father left me with a hell of a job." As they are both plus-4 talkers, you can imagine their practice-tee sessions. In an act of self-protection, Crosby doesn't pick up ringing landline phones in his high-ceilinged house at Lost Tree, the South Florida development where Jack Nicklaus also lives. A bad day for him would be one in which he lost his iPhone charger.

Some of Nathaniel's language is straight out of Bing's performing heyday. (Bing's competitive golf highlight came in 1950, when he played in the British Amateur on the Old Course, losing in the first round to a St. Andrews carpenter as 20,000 people followed them.) In conversation Nathaniel will refer to boldface names from yesteryear (Jimmy Durante would be a prime example) as "hot dogs." Find another 46-year-old anywhere who uses hot dog that way. If Crosby wants to tell you something off the record, he'll say, "I wouldn't want to say this out loud." For angry, he'll use cross. When was the last time 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 Hope off camera, Jack Benny never—worked blue, Bing would say he "got so trash can," and Nathaniel uses that phrase today.

Even when he's not using phrases from the golden age of radio, Nathaniel Crosby's speech is out of a time warp: American college life, circa 1982. If Crosby says, of no one in particular, "She lost her amateur status," it may have nothing to do with a female golfer cashing a tournament check. Regarding his own effort to become a reinstated amateur—he played three years of professional golf after graduating from the University of Miami in 1984—Crosby says it was easy: "I hit a bucket of balls for a USGA guy, and he says, 'You're right. You're no pro.'" It's a line he's been using for years, but he tells it fresh, and he tells it clean. Bing's son does not work trash can.

The game of golf is Crosby's second-favorite subject, eclipsed only by the business of golf. In 1988, at age 26, after playing the European tour for three years, Crosby became the president of Toney Penna Golf, an equipment manufacturer. ("In three years 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 at Nicklaus Golf Equipment, later at Orlimar, where he was a pioneer in direct marketing through infomercials. In 1997, Crosby says, Orlimar had $1.5 million in gross sales; in 1998, his first year as president, it had $103 million in gross sales and $13 million in earnings. Unless you have an MBA and a lot of time, don't get him started. Suffice it to say that nobody can analyze the rate of returns of infomercial fairway-wood sales with more enthusiasm than Crosby. Regarding the proliferation of those half-hour, middle-of-the-night ads on high-numbered cable channels, Crosby says, "The infomercial business is kept alive by every guy in a garage with an invention, a patent and a dream."

Soon after becoming the president of Toney Penna Golf, Crosby went to Asia for 11 days with Bob Hope. By day on this road show, Hope and Crosby would play golf and meet with highly placed government finance and trade ministers—too highly placed to be useful to Crosby—and the occasional golf distributor. At night Hope would perform, working Crosby into his show and teaching him how to deliver 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-am tournament bearing his name. "They wished each other the best every day of their lives," Crosby says. Hope paid Nathaniel $10,000 to accompany him on that 1989 trip. Why? "Because Bob Hope was a very kind man and a great friend of my father's," Crosby says. "And because he had never spent much time with me." When Crosby won the Amateur, Hope, watching on a pro-shop TV in Minneapolis, cried like a baby, according to an assistant pro in the shop that day.

Crosby was introduced to golf by his father, who made 13 holes in one in his life, a comment on both the crooner's skill and how much he played. For years Bing and Nathaniel, the last of his seven children (four from his first marriage, three from 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." When Nathaniel, at 15, won the club championship against the menfolk at Burlingame Country Club in suburban San Francisco, where they lived, Bing went home to his wife, Kathryn, and said, "Today is the happiest day of my life." Your guess to her response is likely correct.

Despite Bing's role, 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 Irish nanny, Bridget, who was a lefty and a pro, and it was Bridget who taught me the grip," Crosby says. "She died when I was 11. My daughter Bridget is named for her." Nathaniel and Sheila have six children in their house off Jack Nicklaus Drive, four from Nathaniel's first marriage, two from hers, all between 12 and 17. On weekends the kids often bring friends to the house in North Palm Beach. Yes, it's bedlam.

Crosby is a member of the nearby Seminole Golf Club, the winter hangout for a small knot of former USGA presidents. To be, like Crosby, a former U.S. Amateur winner who plays golf for pleasure and not for money is to have a heightened status within the USGA hierarchy. He sometimes speaks at the annual U.S. Amateur dinner—he speaks some years at the Masters amateur dinner too—and in the USGA sanctum sanctorum, Crosby's two moments in the USGA sun are part of organizational lore. The first and best known is his win in the '81 Amateur at Olympic (for which he received congratulatory notes from Fred Astaire and Gerald Ford, among other hot dogs). The second came less than a year later, at the '82 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Crosby nipped by a shot another college player, Corey Pavin, to win the medal for low amateur.

Why are these successes legendary in the halls of Golf House in Far Hills, N.J.? For starters, Crosby was very young and nothing like an amateur superstar. At times on the Miami golf team he played as the second or third or fourth man. Then there's the matter of where he did what he did. He won the Amateur while spending his nights in his childhood bed, with a window facing the five-acre parcel where Bridget the nanny first showed him the grip. He won his U.S. Open medal for low amateur in a place, Pebble Beach, that was like a second home to him, on a legendary links that will forever be associated with his father. And then there's how he did what he did, coming back from two down with three to play in the Amateur, making a 9 in the second round of the Open but still making the cut. Karma city.

Don't misunderstand: Crosby was very good, and he was often the best player on his Miami team. But he was never anything like a Pavin or a Brad Faxon or a Jodie Mudd, the can't-miss kids of that era. Herbert Warren Wind, the least ruthless and 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 at least a thousand better amateur golfers in the country." Crosby's one-two USGA punch—the '81 Amateur, the '82 U.S. Open—has to be a prime example of what Michael Murphy, the author of Golf in the Kingdom, calls "a peak experience," an attempt to explain an athlete's ability to rise to the occasion.

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