PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Why Nathaniel Crosby is one of the more interesting people in golf

October 25, 2019
2017 Nathaniel Crosby Portrait

Simon Dale

Earlier this year, I was paired in a four-ball with Nathaniel Crosby, the U.S. Walker Cup captain. I hadn’t met Nathaniel before. Immediately I could see he’s a good storyteller, but he was talking about something I had no interest in, like the American team uniforms. Walking down the fourth fairway, he realized I was beside him, and he turned to me and said, “This is off the record.”

“Nathaniel,” I said, “in over 40 years at Golf Digest, I’ve never written a word about the Walker Cup uniforms. Either I’m saving it all up for one big exposé, or I don’t really care. I’ll let you decide.” We laughed and had a very enjoyable round.

A couple of weeks later, I got a book in the mail with no explanation. It was 18 Holes with Bing: Golf, Life and Lessons from Dad, done with Golf Digest’s John Strege. Bing Crosby has always been one of my heroes—a serious golfer who played in the 1940 U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot, belonged to 75 golf clubs, and died walking off a golf course in Spain in 1977. His last words: “That was a great game of golf, fellas.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

Nathaniel had the Bing advantage in life, but what he’s done in golf is nothing short of incredible. It reminds me of a recurring theme in the late Jim Murray’s sports columns: “Picture a guy in an old blanket, sockless, broke, who just climbed down from a freight train. He steps into a ring as a substitute for a contender who broke his hand in training—and he knocks out the heavyweight champion of the world. Sylvester Stallone made ‘Rocky I’ through ‘IV’ [out of this fantasy].” Actually, there’d be four more Rocky movies after Murray wrote that line. It’s sacred to the enduring mythology of sport—the underdog triumphs against all odds.

You may question Nathaniel, whose godfather is Masters and PGA champion Jackie Burke Jr., as the shoeless underdog. But when you look at the graveyard of sons of famous golfing fathers, Nathaniel stands alone. More than anyone else I know, he made the most of the game he had.

He grew up in Northern California, far from the madding crowd of Hollywood, learned his golf from an Irish nanny, and still possesses what might be called an agricultural swing. He hadn’t won much more than the club championship at Burlingame Country Club (age 15) when he qualified for the 1981 U.S. Amateur near his home at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He plowed his way through the field, beating good players, including the phenom Willie Wood in the semis. In the final, Nathaniel was 2 down with three holes to play but rolled in a 20-footer on the 37th hole and won the Amateur. Full stop.

Atheist golfers reexamined their beliefs. Between shots, Nathaniel rubbed the 1940 U.S. Amateur contestant’s medal Bing had given him. His mother, Kathryn Crosby, wore Bing’s old tweed jacket and cap as she walked in the gallery. Herbert Warren Wind wrote in The New Yorker that “there had to be at least a thousand better amateur golfers in the country.” It was a miracle.

It also was the first and last time a neighborhood boy won the Amateur since Dick Chapman at Winged Foot, where he was a member, coincidentally, in Bing’s year, 1940.

Nathaniel played in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982. A couple of days before, he played at Cypress Point with Peter Alliss, who recalled “Nathaniel didn’t break 90.” But he opened with a 77—“I think he skipped a few holes,” Alliss said—then took a quadruple-bogey 9 on the 14th hole in the second round but somehow managed to make the cut and beat another phenom, Corey Pavin, for low amateur. Then Nathaniel won the Porter Cup later that year and qualified for the Eisenhower Trophy—a four-man team that included the amateur legends Jay Sigel, Bob Lewis and Jim Holtgrieve. Only three scores were used each day, which was good for Nathaniel. After an 81 in the third round, he shoots 68 in the final as low man in America’s clutch victory.

Then came the Walker Cup in 1983 at Hoylake, where Captain Sigel sat him out half the matches and then sent him in with Bill Hoffer against Great Britain & Ireland’s two top players, but somehow the Americans won, 2 up, and brought home the cup. In the big moments, Nathaniel always seemed to climb through the ropes and knock out the heavyweight champion.

Crosby, turning 58 in October, went on to play the European Tour with modest results, regained his amateur status and built a successful career in golf-related businesses. So I watched from afar as the Walker Cup returned to Hoylake in early September when Captain Crosby and the Americans trailed, 8½-7½, going into the final-day singles. The U.S took eight of the last 10 matches to win.

I called to congratulate him. “You’re talking to somebody who just broke a 40-year slump,” he said. “I told my team, trying to beat 150 players over four days is hard. Match play is easy—just beat one guy at a time. Simple.”

The improbable Mr. Crosby had done it again.