As a kid, Nathaniel Crosby loved sports of all kinds. But golf was the game that became his passion and his livelihood, and for that he thanks his famous father.
Bing Crosby’s youngest son was barely grip-high to a 4-iron when his nanny taught him to swing a sawed-off golf club in the backyard of the family’s Northern California home. At age 5, Nathaniel graduated to lessons with the pro at Burlingame Country Club, near the Crosby estate. By the time he was 11 years old, Nathaniel was playing to a single-digit handicap, competing in junior tournaments and joining Bing for two or three rounds a week at the country club.
“The happiest times of my childhood were spent on the golf course with him,” Nathaniel writes of his dad in a new book co-authored by Golf Digest writer John Strege. “18 Holes with Bing: Golf, Life, and Lessons from Dad,” released last month, reads like a loving Father’s Day tribute to the smooth-voiced Hollywood legend who grew up at the edge of the Gonzaga University campus on Spokane’s North Side.
“He was a great dad and I had the best childhood I could possibly ask for,” Nathaniel said in a telephone interview from his Florida home.
Nathaniel makes clear in his book that he acquired his love of golf from his dad – and that the game was a solid cornerstone of a warm father-son relationship. He also portrays his dad not so much as a singer and actor who played golf but more as a golfer who happened to sing and make movies, perhaps motivated by the need to pay his country club dues. And the author makes a case with supporting testimony, including from Jack Nicklaus, who wrote the book’s foreword, that Bing deserves a big share of credit for the tremendous popularity of golf and the PGA Tour today, nearly four decades after his death.
Book contradicts earlier account of Bing as a father
Nathaniel’s affection for his dad is evident page after page, never more so than when he addresses the lasting stain on Bing’s image as a parent that resulted from a book by Nathaniel’s older half-brother, Gary Crosby.
In “Going My Own Way,” Gary portrays his father as emotionally distant and quick to reach for the belt when the need for discipline arose. But Bing’s behavior as described in that 1983 memoir never really comes close to “Daddy Dearest” territory, even though the book was promoted that way when it was published. In fact, even the stern disciplinarian portrayed in Gary’s book probably wasn’t atypical for the time.
“Growing up in Spokane, Washington, he attended Jesuit schools, with all that implies, including nuns with paddles,” Nathaniel writes. “I doubt that my father, with his first family, was appreciably different than other good parents of his generation who used corporal punishment.”
Bing essentially had two families – four sons with his first wife, Dixie Lee, an actress who died of cancer in 1952, and two more sons and a daughter with his second wife, Kathryn Grant, also an actress, whom he married in 1957.
“I believe he had more time to spend with us, as his career was less a priority later in life than it was when he was raising his first four sons,” Nathaniel said.
“The legacy I deem most important concerns how he fathered me,” Nathaniel writes of his dad. “His devotion to me, though often centered around golf or other sports, was not because of them, but was a result of his determination to spend one-on-one time, as was the case with my brother and sister, too. It was a bonus, perhaps, that our time together involved a mutual love of golf.”
In many ways, Nathaniel was a beneficiary of his father’s passion for the game. And it seems there was hardly anything Bing loved more than golf.
“Everything Dad accomplished in the entertainment field was a distant second to this game that animated him more than anything else,” Nathaniel said. Here’s how Bing himself summed it up in an interview with Golf Digest: “In the battle against par or against your opponent, you can’t think about much else, and the result, for me at least, is good therapy. For me golf has been a kind of passport to relaxation and happiness.”
When Bing died at age 74 in 1977 of a heart attack while walking off a golf course in Spain where he had just carded an 85, he held memberships in 75 different country clubs. Of course, his celebrity and his connections in the golf world gave him access to pretty much any course he wanted to play. While in his teens, Nathaniel got to tag along with his dad to play legendary courses around the world with a galaxy of stars from entertainment and sports, along with a few titans of industry, members of royalty and even a couple of presidents.
Bing was an outstanding amateur golfer who won several club championships in the 1930s and 1940s. At the top of his game, Bing carried a 2 handicap and played in both the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur championships. His youngest son became an even better golfer – which made Bing immensely proud.
In his book, Nathaniel quotes from a letter Bing wrote to golfing buddy Ben Hogan: “I still have a lot of fun playing with the boys. Nathaniel, the 14-year-old – he’ll be 15 this month – is looking like he’s going to be a good player. He’s a two handicap now at Burlingame, and he works very hard at the game. Takes instruction very well, and I’m confident that he’ll make it – in some way or another – and at least he’ll have a very good golf game for the rest of his life.”
He also shares a story about a telephone call his mother received from Bing in 1976 while she was in Texas performing in a play with daughter Mary Frances. (As an actress, Nathaniel’s sister later had a role on the hit television series “Dallas,” and her character, Kristin Shepard, is best remembered today as the answer to a 1980s TV trivia question: Who shot J.R. Ewing?)
“One Saturday, Dad called her and breathlessly said, ‘This is the happiest day of my life. Nathaniel has just won the men’s club championship at Burlingame Country Club.’ Mom was understandably offended. ‘That was Bing’s happiest day,’ she said. ‘Not the songs or any of his show business successes. Not our wedding. Not the birth of his little girl. The fact that his teenage son had become the men’s champion at the Burlingame Country Club.’ ”
Winning that club championship as a 15-year-old may have made for the happiest day of his dad’s life, but it was hardly the peak of Nathaniel’s golfing exploits. In 1981, when he was 19, Nathaniel won the U.S. Amateur Championship in a dramatic playoff at the Olympic Club in San Francisco that was televised nationally on ABC. The next year, Nathaniel was low-scoring amateur in the 1982 U.S. Open. He went on to play five years of professional golf, mostly on the European Tour, while also competing in several PGA events, including the Masters and the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.
Nathaniel’s U.S. Amateur victory brought a memorable and emotional call of congratulations from his dad’s longtime showbiz co-star and golfing pal, Bob Hope, who had watched on TV. Along with his own good wishes, Hope relayed bits of a conversation he had just had with President Gerald Ford, another of Bing’s golfing friends who also watched the U.S. Amateur telecast. “It wasn’t just his putting, Bob,” the former president said. “That young man hit a lot of greens with his iron shots.” Hope – always the guy with the punchline – replied, “There hasn’t been a Crosby with that much accuracy since Nathaniel’s sister shot J.R. Ewing.”
Nathaniel said he went into the tournament determined to win it for his father. That he managed to pull off a come-from-behind, sudden-death win, Nathaniel said, was “probably an example of steeling myself mentally and exceeding the normal boundaries of my ability because in my mind and my heart I was playing for my dad.”
To this day, almost nobody bigger than Bing
The Crosbys’ lasting, multigenerational love affair with the game began right here in Spokane.
“His introduction to golf came through the caddy ranks at Downriver Golf Course,” Nathaniel writes of his dad. Starting in his early teens, Bing earned 50 cents a bag carrying golfers’ clubs around the city’s first 18-hole track. Bing was a small kid, but athletic – he was an infielder on the baseball team at Gonzaga High School and even played for a year at Gonzaga U – and he was also highly ambitious, a good combination for success as a caddy.
According to Nathaniel, when Bing was a few years older and starting to make some decent scratch playing local music venues as part of a popular dance band, he returned often to play Downriver with his buddy and bandmate, Al Rinker, laying the foundation for his lifelong obsession with golf.
In Hollywood, Bing’s rise to stardom was nothing less than meteoric. How big was Bing back in the day? He was an American pop-culture colossus who, for parts of three decades, stood atop the recording industry, radio, movies and television.
In 1948, Music Digest estimated that Bing’s smooth bass-baritone voice filled more than half of the hours allotted each week to recorded music on American radio. He charted more hit songs than Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Michael Jackson combined. His rendition of “White Christmas” is the biggest-selling single record in history.
Crosby appeared in 104 films and together those motion pictures sold more than 1 billion tickets, which still ranks him as the No. 2 box office attraction of all time, according to the International Motion Picture Almanac. He won the best actor Oscar for playing a priest in “Going My Way” and earned two more Academy Award nominations. He performed regularly on television well into the 1960s, when he moved into producing and began turning out long-running TV hits ranging from the medical drama “Ben Casey” to the offbeat comedy “Hogan’s Heroes.” Even into the 1970s, Bing’s annual holiday specials, which always featured his family, were must-see TV.
‘How you hittin’ them?’ was standard opening line
Part of Bing’s popularity was his easygoing, every-guy public image – and his love of golf. He and Bob Hope played together at courses all over the country starting in the 1940s, first to raise money on behalf of the war effort and later for charitable causes of all sorts. That a swell fellow like Bing played the game somehow made golf seem a little less elitist – something that anyone could enjoy.
A crowd of 2,500 turned out at Spokane’s Downriver Golf Course in 1946 to watch Bing and Bob Hope play a benefit match with Downriver’s pro, Neil Christian, and Bud Ward, a top local amateur golfer. The Spokane Chronicle reported that all four carded very respectable scores: Christian shot a 69, Ward a 71, Hope a 74 and Crosby a 76.
In his book, Nathaniel quotes legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray. “No one loved golf like Bing,” Murray wrote. “I never had a conversation with him in 25 years that didn’t begin or end with golf. ‘How you hittin’ them?’ was his standard opening line.”
In his foreword to Nathaniel’s book, Jack Nicklaus writes, “The PGA Tour is indebted to Bing Crosby, whose contributions to professional golf and golfers in the early years is immeasurable.” Nicklaus credits Bing as the inventor of the pro-am format, which today is a staple of every PGA Tour event and the generator of much of the PGA’s contributions to charity. He also cites the annual Crosby tournament as “close to a major in many golfers’ eyes, closer certainly than any other tournament on the PGA Tour.”
The Crosby tournament has always attracted golfers from show business ranks, and that, along with the world’s top pros, made for appealing TV, which Bing parlayed into top ratings.
One of the 18 chapters in Nathaniel’s book is devoted to the famed Pebble Beach tournament founded by his father and his own role in the event. As a preteen, he hung around the course passing out pencils and scorecards to participants. When Bing died in 1977, Nathaniel was still a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday and attending Burlingame High School in California. Age notwithstanding, Nathaniel’s mother assigned him to succeed Bing as host of the event.
It was a huge responsibility for a teenager. The job Nathaniel inherited included months of planning meetings, handling all amateur invitations and professional exemptions, plus deciding on tournament pairings, along with hosting the “Clambake” dinner party for 1,000 volunteers and players, serving as master of ceremonies for evening entertainment that featured Bob Hope, Phil Harris, Rosemary Clooney and others, and doing the tournament’s CBS telecast with Pat Summerall, Bob Rosburg and Ken Venturi.
Nathaniel reveals behind-the-scenes battles the Crosbys fought with the PGA over workings of the pro-am format and especially over the split of TV money. Among his many attributes, Bing was a clever and highly successful businessman, and he negotiated huge contracts with the network. Bing worked for free on his tournament in order to raise as much money as possible for charity. He wasn’t going to give the PGA more money than he felt was right, even if it meant threatening to cancel the event.
In 1964, the PGA asked for 75 percent of the TV proceeds from the tournament. “They’re just coming in and saying ‘We’re taking over,’ ” fumed Bing’s brother Larry Crosby, who was running the tournament at the time. “Have you ever heard of anything like that? This is worse than the Capone mob moving in.”
Business interests supported golf habit
Fairly early on, Bing discovered he could use his business acumen to further his own golfing interests. In the early postwar years, he read that the Nazis had broadcast propaganda by airing voices recorded on magnetic tape. He researched the technology, tracked down the German engineer who held the patent and put up the seed money to start Ampex, the company that developed recording technology in the U.S. The reason, according to Nathaniel, was that Bing wanted to tape his national radio show so he could free up more time to play golf.
Back then, such programming was aired live – which meant Bing had to do one show for East Coast listeners and a second one three hours later for the West Coast audience. In 1947, when NBC insisted that he continue to do his shows live, Bing bolted for rival network ABC, which allowed him to use audiotape technology. Bing’s program on ABC was the first prerecorded radio show broadcast by any network.
At ABC, Bing would tape several weeks’ worth of shows in just a few days of studio time. Nathaniel quotes from Bing’s own writing on the matter: “Golf had plenty to do with my decision to present (recorded) shows. The demands of the radio deadlines and the inconvenience of being at a studio for rehearsals and shows week after week were interfering with my golf. My golf is too important to my business performance to be interfered with.”
That attitude endured. In the 1960s, Bing was offered the lead role in the TV detective series “Columbo” but turned it down because he worried the gig would get in the way of golf.
“I guess I’m making it tough on my agent,” Bing told TV Guide.
Perhaps Bing was intent on grooming his son for the game. When Nathaniel was a toddler, Bing and his wife decided to hire a nanny to help with their children. Several candidates were interviewed before the Crosbys met Bridget Brennan, who hailed from County Tipperary in Ireland. When Bing discovered that she was an accomplished golfer, he hired her on the spot.
Nathaniel recalls that it was she who gave him his first backyard golf lessons.
“She taught me the stance, the grip and other fundamentals,” he said – and he grew so fond of his nanny through his childhood that he named his daughter Bridget.
Nathaniel grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps as a golfer and a businessman. After retiring from professional golf, Nathaniel headed up a golf equipment company for several years and today is working with exclusive resorts to develop a cooperative membership network that would allow well-heeled golfers to enjoy residential and playing benefits.
He credits his dad as an inspiration and for showing him that success in any endeavor begins with hard work. He also acknowledges that he was fortunate to be given the opportunity to develop his game as a boy and to know and develop lasting relationships with his dad’s friends, including Ben Hogan and Jackie Burke, Nathaniel’s godfather and a winner of both the Masters and the U.S. Open golf tournaments.
“His time constraints, even in semi-retirement, could have been an impediment to our time together, but they weren’t,” Nathaniel said. “The results were incredible experiences and the memories they created: a one-time trip to Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates in the World Series, or an African safari. For me, my fondest memories tend toward his making me part of his daily routine, whether it was playing golf or watching games together, or even the simple act of sharing the sports page at breakfast.”
Mike Schmeltzer is a former newspaper editor, currently a real estate broker, who has authored four books; he’s also a board member of the organization Bing Crosby Advocates, which hosts the annual Bing Crosby film festival.
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