Wherever Nathaniel Crosby goes, he is confronted with the inescapable question: What was it like growing up as Bing Crosby's son? "There were obvious advantages," says Nathaniel, 19, the youngest of the late crooner's seven children, "but there were disadvantages too. We didn't have the freedom a lot of kids had. We had to be a little careful. People always had their eyes on us."
Never more so than last week. Nathaniel, in a heart-stopping finish, stormed from behind to capture the 81st U.S. Amateur golf championship, joining a pantheon of winners with names like Nicklaus and Palmer. For Nathaniel Crosby the victory fulfilled a promise he made to himself in 1977, the year his father died of a heart attack after a round of golf in Spain. Young Crosby vowed at the time that he would win a major tournament before he was 20. He beat the deadline by a month, and in spectacular style, winning six of the last 10 holes to tie his final match, then sinking a dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole.
Throughout the six-day tournament in San Francisco, just nine miles from the Crosby home in Hillsborough, Nathaniel's gallery included his mother, Kathryn, 48. She wore one of her late husband's jackets, altered to fit, for luck on the final day. Though Nathaniel has played in dozens of amateur tournaments, he felt extra pressure to win the big one because of the accomplishments of his illustrious family. "Look at my father and mother," he joked after the last putt had fallen. "And my sister [actress Mary Frances Crosby of Dallas] shoots J.R. on TV. Hey, I've got to win the U.S. Amateur."
Nathaniel's initiation into the mysteries of golf began when he was 4 and knee-high to a niblick. Touring pro Jack Burke Jr., his godfather and a former PGA Champion, made him a set of shortened clubs, and by the time little Nat was 11 he was playing regularly with Bing. "I had a very close relationship with him," Nathaniel recalls. "Maybe more so than the other kids because we had the same interests. Whenever we were both free, we played. He loved it and so did I."
Voted most valuable player on his Burlingame High School team, Nathaniel turned down recruiters from Stanford and Rice to enroll at the University of Miami, where he is now a junior. A political science major with no thought of going into show business ("I have absolutely no talent"), he lives alone in an apartment eight minutes from school, and spends most of his free time with girlfriend Jill Taylor. Though he describes himself jokingly as a "typical punk teenager," he comfortably maintains a B average. "It's a priority to get my college degree," he says, "but I'm going to have to talk to my coach before I decide about continuing to play on the college circuit this year."
By winning the U.S. Amateur championship, Crosby automatically qualifies for next year's U.S. Open, the British Open, the Masters and the World Series of Golf. For now, he has no intention of turning pro, but will stay on as chairman of the popular Bing Crosby National Pro-Am Tournament, a job he inherited from his father when he was only 16. "I sign the contracts and make the final decisions," says Nathaniel, who once vetoed a plan to drop amateurs from the televised final round of the tournament. "I knew the way my father felt about amateurs," he explains. "Without them, the spirit of the tournament would have been lost."
Bing, in fact, is never far from his youngest son's mind. During last week's tournament, whenever the tension was thickest, Nathaniel would nervously finger an old medallion that Bing had won in 1941 for qualifying to compete in the amateur championship. "Thinking of my father always relaxes me," Nathaniel says. "I knew he was up there and that he was with me."