This is the sixth installment of stories looking back at USGA championships conducted at The Olympic Club, site of the 2012 U.S. Open. This article is on Nathaniel Crosby’s 1981 U.S. Amateur triumph.
On the grounds of The Olympic Club in 1981, wherever Nathaniel Crosby walked, he heard the whispers.
“That’s Crosby’s kid,” they said. “That’s Bing’s son.”
Indeed, Nathaniel, then 19, until August of that year was best known as the son of the late Bing Crosby, one of America’s favorite entertainers and a devoted golfer. Bing, who had died four years earlier in 1977, is today fondly remembered as the crooner and movie star who just happened to play a great game of golf.
Crosby seemingly had it all. His recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” remains the best-selling record of all time. He won the Academy Award for “Going My Way.” And, boasting a handicap that ranged from scratch to 2, he qualified for the 1940 U.S. Amateur over the West Course of the Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
“As you might imagine, Crosby’s presence created a sensation,” Robert Sommers wrote in Golf Journal in 1981. “Crowds swarmed around him, and he found it difficult to play his shots.”
Bing played in just one more U.S. Amateur, in 1941 in Omaha, Neb., and he cherished the player identification badge he wore that week. He later had the keepsake made into a necklace, which his son Nathaniel wore in the U.S. Amateur four decades years later.
Young Crosby had first held a golf club when he was 3 or 4 years old. Under the tutelage of Maurice Ver Brugge, the golf professional at the Burlingame Country Club in Hillsborough, Calif., he developed into a very good player. Later, Nathaniel took lessons from former touring professional Toney Penna, a friend of Bing’s.
In 1981, Nathaniel Crosby entered the U.S. Amateur with not much of a playing record to back him up. He finished well back in that year’s Southern Amateur and 55th in the Northeast Amateur. He lost in the second round of the Trans-Mississippi and the fourth round of the North & South. At his best, he had advanced to the semifinals of the 1981 Broadmoor Invitational.
But Nathaniel hit a hot streak in the Amateur. He knocked out Frank Fuhrer III, a member of the 1981 Walker Cup Team, in the first round and defeated Willie Wood, a Walker Cup alternate, in the semifinal, scrambling to come from behind.
Olympic’s Lake Course, the championship site, was lush and playing longer than its advertised 6,679 yards. The damp weather didn’t help ball flight and forced many long carries to the greens. The championship field struggled as a whole with the layout, and though Nathaniel was not a long hitter, he somehow prevailed that week.
Throughout the championship, the son wore his father’s contestant’s medal around his neck. In tight spots, he rubbed it with his fingers – a reminder, perhaps, of his father’s love and support.
“It was something to relax me,” the young Crosby said of the mannerism. “It was a way of keeping positive thoughts in my mind. I knew he was up there and he was on my side.”
Nathaniel’s mother, Kathryn Crosby, was also an entertainer and his sister performed on the television show, Dallas.
“Pressure?” Nathaniel told Golf World. “Everybody in my family has been successful. My father. My mother. My sister shoots J.R. I gotta win the Amateur.”
So Crosby eased his way through the match-play brackets to meet Brian Lindley, 24, of Fountain Valley, Calif., in the final. As Jim Moriarty wrote in Golf World, “Even local pride doesn’t account for the 5,000 or so spectators that showed up for the semifinals and the 3,000 there for the final – probably the largest crowds to witness a U.S. Amateur since Bob Jones completed his slam. It was Crosby’s name.”
In the semifinals, the Crosby heir had rallied from behind to defeat Wood. Now, against Lindley, he was forced to once again come from behind. Four holes down with just 10 to play, Crosby won the 27th, 30th and 31st and then watched Lindley chip in to win the 32nd. Two holes down with three to play, Crosby won the 34th with a par and his bogey captured the 35th when Lindley was thwarted by an awful lie in a bunker. They halved the 36th. On to the 37th.
Maybe the magic medal was working. Maybe Bing was pulling a few strings. On that deciding hole, Nathaniel holed a winning putt from the fringe. Game. Set. Match. Young Nathaniel Crosby was the national champion.
Following the prize presentation, Nathaniel stood in the clubhouse among friends and was asked what his late father might say. Holding a glass of champagne in his hand, he replied, “Don’t let it go to your head, son.”
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her at email@example.com.