A steak house seems a fitting venue at which to address an old beef, and Nathaniel Crosby had one. It had festered for a while, though time had eroded its sharper edges and the issue lay dormant until it resurfaced somewhere between aperitif and vintage port.
Seven past captains of U.S. Walker Cup teams had assembled at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in West Palm Beach in early 2018 to salute Crosby, who had just recently been named to lead the Americans in 2019, and to offer him advice. Among them was Jay Sigel, a playing captain at the matches at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in 1983 when Crosby was a member of his team.
When it came around to Sigel, he turned to Crosby and said, “Whatever you do, play all your players three times.”
A spit-take in range of prime beef generally is considered bad form, and Crosby restrained himself. Presumably. But he made his point. “You benched me twice,” Crosby said to Sigel. “I’ve been holding this baggage for 35 years.”
The mood was convivial and all in good fun. Sigel apparently had not recalled having kept Crosby out of half the four sessions, and Crosby harbors no true ill will toward Sigel. But the experience undeniably left a scar, notwithstanding the Americans’ three-point victory.
“I was kind of mad,” Crosby said recently, noting that the ’83 Walker Cup took a distant second to his experience in the World Amateur Team Championship in Switzerland the year before, when his final-round 68 propelled a U.S. team that included Sigel to a victory. “The Walker Cup was not nearly as wonderful as the World Amateur.”
Now 57 and the captain of the U.S. team, Crosby returns this week to Royal Liverpool Golf Club, site of the 47th Walker Cup, and he brings with him virtually a blank slate on which to create memories. “I don’t remember much,” he said of his prior experience there.
Royal Liverpool, in fact, registers barely a blip in the voluminous Crosby family album filled largely by the family patriarch, the legendary entertainer Bing Crosby, Nathaniel’s father.
Bing was an unabashed Anglophile and a devotee of British golf courses. On one business trip to London, in 1971, he flew into Scotland, played the two existing courses at Gleneagles, Turnberry, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, Sunningdale, Royal West Norfolk, Huntercombe and Royal St. George’s before getting around to the reason he was in the U.K.—business.
Yet there is no evidence that Bing ever played Royal Liverpool, though he did perform at the historic Empire Theater in Liverpool, about 10 miles east of Hoylake. His only brush with the course was when he was considering playing the British Amateur when it was held there in 1953, until a British sportswriter, Desmond Hackett, pointedly suggested he not.
Hackett noted that when Crosby had played the British Amateur at the Old Course at St. Andrews in 1950 female admirers “ran screaming all over the course, treading thru bunkers, stamping their ignorance on the greens with high-heeled shoes …
“Bing Crosby is entitled like any other golf-minded citizen to enter for the Amateur so long as he complies with the rules which set down plainly but firmly, ‘I am eligible under conditions of the championship and have a handicap not exceeding three strokes.’ If Bing Crosby can play to three, then I am entitled to top billing at the Palladium.”
Bing did play to a three, but chose not to compete at Hoylake, no doubt to the dismay of those who would have enjoyed seeing him. It would not have been a small turnout, either, for an entertainer held in the highest regard there for his talent, fame and, especially, his contributions to the war effort, in entertaining troops and raising funds.
Thirty years later and six years after Bing’s death, Nathaniel drew crowds on and off the course at Royal Liverpool in 1983 thanks at least in part to his family ties.
“…[E]ven though he wasn’t necessarily the most feared golfer in the USA team, he was definitely the one who aroused the most curiosity,” head professional John Heggerty recalled in Royal Liverpool Golf Club Magazine’s 2018-2019 edition.
“You have to remember that all those years ago the Crosby name was much more firmly in people’s imaginations than it is now, even though Bing Crosby had passed away a few years earlier … so Nathaniel had something of the celebrity about him, especially to non-golfers.”
Heggerty noted that Crosby and a few of his teammates ventured to Liverpool’s Green Lodge pub one night. When word spread that he was there, a crowd gathered. Crosby does not recall that, other than noting that in those days, including his few years as a professional on the European Tour, he often drew “disproportionate crowds to who I was,” he said. “I didn’t pull like Seve, but there was a curiosity factor.”
What Crosby does remember of the Walker Cup was an amusing story involving him and his caddie, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rod Stewart. “Everybody called him Rod,” Crosby said. Golfers in those days provided their own practice balls and their caddies shagged them for the player.
“You’ve got to go shag some balls for me,” Crosby said to Rod within earshot of the gallery that included women aghast at him using the word “shag,” a vulgarity according to its British definition.
What he also remembers was sitting out the morning foursomes on the first day, then getting routed by GB&I’s Phillip Parkin, 6 and 4, in the afternoon singles. In morning foursomes the second day, he and William Hoffer beat George Macgregor and Phillip Walton, 2 up.
“We beat their best team,” Crosby, the ’81 U.S. Amateur champion, said. “I played out of my wazoo.” Then he was benched in afternoon singles, “an emotional slight,” he called it. “There’s definitely some baggage for me that I got benched twice.”
But that was then and this is now, an opportunity that moves near the top of a golf career that largely wasn’t. “To be honest, the way my career went, retiring at 26 in front of my girlfriend and my dog, I took a step back and chose not to play competitive golf as an adult,” he said. “I was a poster child for the possibly sobering event of not going on to be a PGA Tour star.
“But being a Walker Cup captain is a real privilege, carrying on in my dad’s tradition, a little bit. A great way for to me to give back.”
He was never entirely certain he would get the nod, notwithstanding what he calls generational friendships with so many USGA presidents and executive committee members, including Sandy Tatum, Grant Spaeth, P.J. Boatwright, Jim Hand and Harry Easterly from his youth.
“Now I’ve come full circle,” he said. “Stu Francis [president-elect of the USGA] and Diana Murphy [a past USGA president] are great friends. Her step daughter went to high school with me at Burlingame [Calif.] High. Stu and I have been friends playing golf at Burlingame Country Club [in Hillsborough, Calif.] since I was 14 years old.”
Crosby’s concern about his potential candidacy was twofold. He had played professional golf, which in USGA Walker Cup circles is not a resume enhancer, and he had played only a single USGA event, the U.S. Mid-Amateur, since regaining his amateur status in 1994.
“I haven’t had a great moment in 35 years, haven’t won a tournament in 35 years,” Crosby told Golf Digest when his appointment was announced.
When Murphy called to inform him that he would captain the 2019 U.S. team, he was breathless, he said, and his captaincy already qualifies as a great moment personally. “It’s the younger generation that makes it special,” he said. Crosby, in his duties as captain, attended the Western Amateur, the Porter Cup and the U.S. Amateur, among other tournaments, scouting and acquainting himself with potential team members. “It’s already been an incredible experience, getting to meet the kids and the families, having these kids texting me.”
He received a text one night from Vanderbilt star John Augenstein, the runner-up at last month’s U.S. Amateur, who had recalled that a Crosby friend is Scott DeSano, founder of the DeSano’s pizza chain. “Hey, Captain,” he wrote, “I’m at DeSano’s Pizza.”
Another favorite is University of Texas star Cole Hammer, the No. 1 golfer in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. “I watched him win 11 straight matches last year,” Crosby said. “I’ve already filed adoption papers. I’ve told his parents they have to make room for me in the family.”
Both Augenstein and Hammer are on the Walker Cup team, and it is reasonable to expect that neither of them, nor their eight other teammates, will sit more than one session.
Crosby might recall little from his first go-round at Royal Liverpool, but he remembers too well having been consigned twice to the role of spectator.