From the Golf Journal Archives - Fulfilling a Father's Dream

Aug 19, 2011

Forty-one years after Bing Crosby played in the United States Amateur Championship, his son Nathaniel won the title in a gritty comeback against Brian Lindley.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the October 1981 issue of Golf Journal.)

AT THE PEAK OF his career as an entertainer, in the 1930s and 1940s, Bing Crosby played a very respectable game of golf. No, better than that; he had a handicap of from scratch to two strokes, and he was possibly the most accomplished and serious golfer to come from the theatrical world.

He was so good and so dedicated that on a number of occasions he entered the United States Amateur Championship during an era when we had such players as Bud Ward, Dick Chapman, Johnny Goodman, Charley Yates and Willie Turnesa.

Crosby entered the Amateur in 1940, when the championship was played over the West Course of the Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, N.Y., a suburb of New York City. He was among 16 players competing for four places in sectional qualifying at the Bel-Air Country Club, in Los Angeles. Crosby shot 152 for the 36 holes of qualifying, the same score, by the way, as Randolph Scott, another movie star. Their scores were sixth best in the field (Jack Nounnan also shot 152), but immediately after the qualifying rounds ended, Cape Norcross, first alternate, with 151, announced that he would not play in the championship, and later in the day Stan Moss, who had shot 148, withdrew. Since both Scott and Nounnan also declined to make the trip to New York, Crosby was in the field. The other three qualifiers from Los Angeles were Pat Abbott, Amateur Public Links champion of 1936 who would reach the Amateur final in 1941 and lose to Bud Ward, Bruce McCormick, and Bob Goldwater, brother of the current United States Senator from Arizona.

Only 150 players qualified for the championship in those days, and they played 36 holes of stroke play at the site to determine the 64 who would continue on to match play. Crosby was grouped in the stroke-play rounds with Pat Mucci, a New Yorker, and Billy Bob Coffey, of Fort Worth, Texas. They played immediately ahead of Jess Sweetser, who had won the Amateur 18 years earlier, in 1922; Ray Billows, loser to Ward in the 1939 final match; and Bob Clark, the Public Links champion.

As you might imagine, Crosby’s presence created a sensation. Crowds swarmed around him, and he found it difficult to play his shots. Mucci, who is still around New York, recalled recently that the crowds were so large that New York State Troopers were called in to protect Crosby and his two playing companions.

When Crosby, understandably, shot 83 in the first round, it was obvious that he would have to do considerably better the next day if he were to qualify. Mucci recalls that the crowd was larger and more unruly the next day. Marshals finally were forced to use the long bamboo poles normally used to sweep dew from greens in the early morning to form a box around the three players so they could move through the gallery. Crosby played better, but late in the round it became obvious that he had no chance to qualify.

On the last hole, then a 415-yard par 4, Crosby played a good drive, and as he walked toward his ball, the crowds broke through the cordon and swarmed around him. As Mucci remembers, it took the State Troopers nearly 15 minutes to clear the fairway so that the players could finish. Crosby made 7 on the last hole, giving him 77 for the round and a 36-hole score of 160. He missed match play by five strokes (both Mucci and Coffey made it). Dick Chapman won that Amateur, defeating Duff McCullough in the final, 11 and 9.

Crosby did not play in another Amateur, but he cherished the player identification badge he wore that week and stored it among his keepsakes. Some years ago it was made into a necklace.

WHEN NATHANIEL CROSBY, Bing’s youngest son, won the United States Amateur Championship last month, at the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, he wore that badge around his neck. In times of stress, he reached for it and rubbed it with his fingers, much as Aladdin with his magic lamp. It had the same effect; in a field stocked not only with members of the Walker Cup Teams of both the United States and of Great Britain and Ireland, but also with many other of our best amateur golfers, Crosby, 19, won six matches, the last over Brian Lindley, 24, of Fountain Valley, Calif., near Los Angeles, 1 up in 37 holes.

Nathaniel Crosby has been close to golf all his life. He remembers seeing pictures of himself with a golf club in his hand at three or four years of age, but, he says, he did not really hit a ball until he was about seven. From the time he was first able to play the game until he was 15, he took lessons from Maurice Ver Brugge, the golf professional at the Burlingame Country Club, in Hillsborough, Calif., where the Crosby family has lived for many years. He is now taking instruction from Toney Penna, the former touring professional, in Florida, where Crosby attends college (he is a junior at the University of Miami, studying political science). Since his father’s death, in 1977, Nathaniel has acted as host to the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, played at Pebble Beach, Calif., each winter.

He has developed an unusual swing that, while it lacks the fluid grace of Lindley’s, which reminds you of Peter Thomson’s, or of Willie Wood’s, of Hal Sutton’s, or of Jodie Mudd’s, nevertheless is effective. For one thing, he is able to repeat the same motion time after time, and he does some things very right.

At the top of the backswing, for example, the shaft of the club is right in the slot, pointing parallel to the intended line of flight; it is neither crossed over, with the clubhead pointing to the right of the target, nor is it laid off, with the clubhead pointing to the left of the target. He puts it in that position every time.

He has good extension, which gives him a very big swing arc, as big an arc as he can generate. This, of course, translates into good distance. Those who have seen him play in the past, like Bob Rosburg, the 1959 PGA champion, who now does television commentary, say that if he had a weakness, it was lack of length. He seems to have overcome that, because of all the long par 4s at Olympic, like the fifth, at 456 yards, the sixth, at 434 yards, and the 17th, at 453 yards, he had trouble reaching only the 17th, a brutally difficult hole with a very narrow opening to the green. But, then, so did everyone else. He also hits the ball very high, and that was necessary at Olympic, where so many greens rise above the surrounding ground.

WHILE HIS VICTORY was not as shocking as Francis Ouimet’s in the 1913 Open, it was, of course, a surprise, for he has no record at all in sectional amateur competitions. He played in the Southern Amateur and finished well back; he tied for 55th in the Northeast Amateur, and 59th in the Rice Planters Amateur; lost in the second round of the Trans-Mississippi, the fourth round of the North and South, and in his best performance, lost in the semifinals of the Broadmoor Invitational.

No matter; players with better records than his were eliminated early.

In addition to his gritty win over Lindley, Crosby had two other very impressive victories in the Amateur. In the first round he defeated Frank Fuhrer III, of Pittsburgh, Western Amateur Champion and a Walker Cup Team member, 2 and 1, and in the semifinal round he defeated Willie Wood, of Oklahoma City, Okla., 2 up. Wood was first alternate to the Walker Cup Team. Crosby also defeated Bob Michael, of Sarasota, Fla., three times the national left-handers’ champion, 5 and 4, in the quarterfinals; Bob Wolcott, Jr., of Dickson, Tenn., 2 and 1; and Steve Hart, of Tequesta, Fla., 4 and 3.

Lindley defeated two Walker Cup players – Ron Commans, of Westlake Village, Calif., who is also the NCAA champion, 1 up, in the first round, and Bob Lewis, of Warren, Ohio, 3 and 2, in the semifinal round. Lewis was the losing finalist in 1980, when Hal Sutton, of Shreveport, La., won. Lindley also defeated David Tentis, of White Bear Lake, Minn., 2 and 1, in the quarterfinal round after Tentis defeated Ronan Rafferty, the very appealing Irish Walker Cup player, 1 up in 20 holes, in the morning: Mike McGee, of Middletown, Ohio, 2 and 1, and Brian Gaddy, of Pasadena, Calif., 3 and 2.

The championship was played over the Lake Course of the Olympic Club, a very severe course. We must go back to 1969 and the Oakmont Country Club, in Pittsburgh, to match Olympic as it was set up the first week in September. Although it was not excessively long, at 6,679 yards, it played long because of the damp weather, which promotes lush fairways. It called for long carries to many greens, the kind of shot that Crosby plays well, and the heavy air limited the distance the ball would fly. Then, too, Olympic is a very tiring course to walk; it begins on high ground near the big, cream-colored clubhouse, then sweeps gradually down to lowland near Lake Merced, and climbs again to the high ground below the clubhouse.

CONDITIONS SUCH as these were the cause of the rather spotty, if not downright disappointing golf. Crosby, for example, though he won, played 120 holes of match play in 33 over par (he was 11 over par in the 37 holes of the final match). Add his score of 152 for the 36 holes of stroke play that preceded match play, and he was 45 over par for 156 holes. He was four over par against Fuhrer, five over against Wolcott, three over against both Hart and Michael, and six over against Wood.

By contrast, Hal Sutton was 13 under par for 109 holes of match play when he won the 1980 Amateur at the Country Club of North Carolina, in Pinehurst.

On the other hand, while his medal scores were unimpressive, Nathaniel Crosby did what he had to do; he faced the assignment before him in each round, and he prevailed. At times he looked as if he were about to be beaten, but each time he played the shots he had to play, and he won. He was down at least once in four of his six matches. He was never down in his first, against Frank Fuhrer when he played the first nine in 34, one under par, his only sub-par nine of the week, or against Michael in the quarterfinal.

Before facing Lindley in the final match, Crosby’s most stern test came against Wood, a really superb young amateur from Oklahoma State University, in the semifinal round. Wood had Crosby 3 down after eight holes, but Crosby made his par figures on the next five holes, Wood did not, and by the end of 13 holes, Crosby was 1 up. He lost the 14th to a bogey 5, and so with three holes to play, the match was even.

Crosby then played three marvelous bunker shots, the first to save a half in pars on the 16th, the second, one of the more spectacular shots you are likely to see at any level of competition, from the lower of two bunkers to the right of the 17th green to within two feet for another par that won the hole, and the third for another par at the 18th to win his match, 2 up.

Against Lindley in the final match, Crosby birdied the first hole to go 1 up, immediately lost the second and fourth, and went 1 down early. Neither was able to show superiority over the other during the rest of the morning round, and they went to lunch with Lindley ahead, 1 up, on a 74 against Crosby’s 76, four and six over par, respectively.

AS THE AFTERNOON round began, it seemed that Crosby’s time had run out. Lindley won the second with a bogey when Crosby pulled his tee shot so far into the woods he needed two shots to reach the fairway. He won the third with a par 3, and the seventh with a birdie 3. By then he was 4 up with 10 holes to play.

Lindley made a poor chip to lose the ninth to a par 4. It didn’t seem significant at the time, for he still had three holes in hand, but then he lost the 12th and 13th, and all at once his lead was down to one hole. He chipped in for a birdie 3 at the 14th to win back one hole, and then played a very good tee shot to the 15th, a 147-yard par 3, to about eight feet. Crosby, too, played a good shot, inside Lindley.

Crosby won the Amateur on this and the next two holes. Lindley holed his putt for a second straight birdie, but Crosby answered with a birdie of his own to hold at 2 down. On the 16th, a par 5 of 604 yards that bends left, Lindley played two very good wood shots to center fairway while Crosby, for the third consecutive time, pushed his second into a stand of tall Monterey cypress. He had an opening to the green, however, and played a very good shot that cleared the bunkers that guard the approach, hit on the green, and rolled off the back.

From a much better position, Lindley played an 8-iron, but seemed to hit the ball a little heavy. It fell short, into the bunker. Crosby played an indifferent chip to about 10 feet, and then he holed the putt and won the hole with a par 5. Lindley was down to a one-hole lead once again.

For the third time that week, Crosby won the 17th hole at a critical time, even though he bogeyed, missing the green to the right. Lindley’s second shot settled under the lip of the low bunker, and he had no chance to reach the green from that kind of lie. He made 6, and the match was even.

Both made par 4s on the 18th, and they went into extra holes, the first time the final had gone more then 36 holes since 1950, when Sam Urzetta defeated Frank Stranahan in 39 holes.

Crosby settled matters quickly by holing from just off the front edge of the first green for a birdie 4. It was a curling putt of perhaps 20 or 22 feet. As the ball began to curve to the right, Crosby thought he had missed, that the ball would hit the lip of the cup and stay out.

He was thinking, “All my life I’ll remember that putt that lipped out.”

When the ball fell into the cup, Crosby, his face showing an expression of, first, astonishment, then pure joy, leaped high off the ground and ran to his caddie, embracing him and climbing all over him. He had won the Amateur, realizing a dream his father had never been able to realize.

CROSBY WILL BE 20 years old this month; he is among five players to win the Amateur before their 20th birthdays. Despite his youth, he is a remarkably poised young man, as well he might be. He springs from an extremely prominent family: his mother, Mrs. Kathryn Crosby, was an actress, as is his sister, Mary, who won her share of fame in the television show Dallas, and his father was among the best-known entertainers in theatrical history. His brother, Harry, is in graduate school in New York.

When he was asked if he was surprised at winning, he smiled.

“I come from a successful family. My father was successful, my mother was successful, my brother is successful, my sister shot J.R. I just had to win the National Amateur.”

The 2011 U.S. Amateur will be played Aug. 22-28 at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. For more information about the championship, visit the U.S. Amateur section of the USGA website.

Nathaniel Crosby is one of only five players to have won the U.S. Amateur Championship before their 20th birthday. (USGA Museum)

Willie Wood had to play three extra holes in a playoff to reach match play, and then went to the semifinal round, where he lost to Nathaniel Crosby. (USGA Museum)

Brian Lindley worked for two and a half years as an aerospace engineer, but he has left the job and might try to play the PGA Tour. He was a finalist in the California Amateur. (USGA Museum)