September 3, 2007

Backspin

Comebacks earned Crosby the '81 U.S. Amateur title

It has been 26 years since Nathaniel Crosby won the 1981 U.S. Amateur at Olympic Club, but the image of Bing's boy caressing the medallion his father received for playing in the same tournament some 40 years earlier remains fresh. Nearly four years after Bing's death, 19-year-old Nathaniel rubbed the pendant for good luck on crucial putts, including the winning 20-footer on the first playoff hole. The putt was great theater. The medallion was a good storyline -- one that needs a little revisionist history.

"I have to fess up," says Crosby. "Although the medallion looked like a USGA contestant medallion, it wasn't. I'm not really sure what it was for other than it was from a tournament my dad played in 1941. But it served its purpose." That it did. Crosby and his good-luck charm were on a roll all week in San Francisco, including during his semifinal match against Oklahoma State All-American Willie Wood.

Wood was the favorite, but Crosby had reason for optimism, having defeated Wood in the Trans-Mississippi earlier that year despite being 3 down with five holes to play. At Olympic, Crosby was again 3 down early, but came back to win 2 up with sand saves on the final three holes. "Willie's the nicest guy in the world, but he took the loss hard," says Crosby. "Two years later he wouldn't talk to me during the Walker Cup."

The final between Crosby and Brian Lindley was played before 3,000 spectators, and Crosby felt pressure to succeed. "Everybody in my family has been successful," Crosby said at the time. "My father, my mother. My sister [Mary] shoots J.R. [in the TV series 'Dallas']. I gotta win the Amateur."

In the final Crosby played comeback kid again with a pre-Tiger display of clutch shots and fist pumps. Four down with 10 holes to go, he eventually squared the match and then won it on the first extra hole when the 20-footer fell.

The win brought critical remarks that the victory was a fluke -- something that irks Crosby. "I was competitive on the national amateur level," he says. "I was medalist at the U.S. Junior in 1979. But some of the things written made it sound like I was a 20-handicapper."

As such, Crosby set out to "de-fluke" the win. He was low amateur in the 1982 U.S. Open and also won the Porter Cup that year. After college he failed to get through PGA Tour Q School, but he earned his card for the European Tour. He finished 87th on the money list in 1985, thanks largely to a third-place showing in the Portuguese Open. It was the high point of a three-year stint overseas.

Crosby then joined the golf business, spending 10 years with Toney Penna/Nicklaus Golf before moving on to Orlimar, where he devised a highly successful infomercial strategy. Unfortunately, the company suffered from the rapid growth and went bust in 2003, washing out Crosby's financial interest. Today, he is involved in a project that advertises real-estate developments through infomercials.

Crosby has played few events since regaining his amateur status in 1990 (although he qualified for the 1996 U.S. Mid-Amateur thanks to an ace in a playoff for the last spot). The 45-year-old father of four tried to qualify for this year's Amateur but fell short, shooting 76-77. He still made the trek to Olympic.

"At the player's dinner I read a poem I had written," says Crosby, who lives in North Palm Beach, Fla. "It basically said what I had lived: That it's great to want to be the next Nicklaus or Woods, but that you have to know when it's not going to happen and be content with what you have achieved."