Clambake's spirit continues at Pebble

Nathaniel Crosby's earliest memories of his father's Clambake are of passing out scorecards and pencils with one of his brothers to the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd on the first tee at Cypress Point.

This was the late 1960s and early '70s, when anybody who was anybody in golf wanted to be on the Monterey Peninsula in February for the event that Bing Crosby started in 1937 to bring his buddies from the tour and Hollywood together for a week of fun on the golf course.

Nathaniel Crosby would slip under the ropes to catch a close up of Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.

"Literally, some of these guys watched me grow up," said Nathaniel, now 51. "So that puts the enthusiasm of golf right into your DNA."

When Nathaniel played in junior tournaments, his famous father, the man who made "White Christmas" a staple of the American songbook, would show up with binoculars, an overcoat, dark sunglasses and his trademark pipe tucked away in a coat pocket.

"He was very good at being incognito," Nathaniel said. "People were clueless as to who he was, and he would wander the golf course. And he would occasionally blow his cover if he whistled by accident, and then people would say, 'That's Bing Cosby.'"

Bing was there when a 14-year-old Nathaniel played his first Pro-Am in 1976. A year later, the singer was dead. For the next eight years, the Crosby family ran the tournament until lawyers of the singer's estate determined that it was no longer financially feasible for them to continue underwriting the event.

Nathaniel ran the tournament in 1981 when he won the U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club. That 1-up victory over Brian Lindley was the highlight of his playing career that included three years on the European Tour after college at the University of Miami.

Nathaniel made his pro debut in the 1985 Pro-Am. After 13 holes in the first round, he was 3-under par at Cypress Point. That sent a buzz among sportswriters, who were excited that a Crosby had a chance of leading the Crosby. But Nathaniel played poorly over the final few holes to fall from near the lead.

After he regained his amateur status, Nathaniel played in the Pro-Am nine times with Ben Crenshaw.

The Crosby family no longer has a formal relationship with the Pro-Am. Nathaniel resigned from the tournament board more than a decade ago and now lives in North Palm Beach, Fla., where he is developing private golf clubs. He doesn't plan to attend the tournament this year.

"If there was any chance that I could restore my dad's legacy and affiliation and likeness to the tournament, I would like to see that happen," Nathaniel said. "We feel very strongly that it's his legacy as the founder of the tournament. No matter what you say, there are only founders and people that are operating the tournament."

The Pro-Am, which was known as the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am until 1986 when AT&T put its name on the event, is still a major draw for amateurs. But it no longer attracts many of the top players in the world.

Phil Mickelson, the defending champion and four-time winner, is in the field, but he is one of only five of the top 20 players in the world who are there for Thursday's first round.

According to Nathaniel, Nicklaus had a stretch of 20 years or more where he didn't miss but one Pro-Am.

Tiger Woods has entered the Pro-Am twice since winning it in 2000, his fourth full year on tour. Woods has said that his absence from the site of his 2000 U.S. Open win is due to scheduling conflicts, but he is known to be not a big fan of the pro-am format or some of the horseplay that goes on with the celebrities.

Nathaniel is supportive of these vaudevillian traditions that make the event special.

"When Bill Murray comes out and entertains the gallery, it's not very different from what Bob Hope and Phil Harris did back in the '40s," he said. "Some core golfers get offended by it, but I remind them that the Pro-Am is a very special tournament that allows celebrities to be buffoons on the golf course. Either the pros approve of it or they can pass on the event."

He also notes that his family tried to cater to the wishes of the best players.

"My dad and the family was always very careful to let Nicklaus bring three or four amateurs that he was very close with to make sure he came every year," Nathaniel said. "I think that there has been a little departure from that, and they are missing out on getting Tiger and others to attend because they aren't as liberal in letting the star professionals bring their amateurs."

The old Clambake endures, and the Crosby legacy lives in the meshing of celebrity, Wall Streeters and pro golfers. Bing's name is no longer on the signage, but it's still his tournament.