HOYLAKE, ENGLAND | First a story.
Pat Ward-Thomas was perhaps the most elegant of the British golf writers who generated quite a following in the second half of the last century. This was the post-Bernard Darwin era, the time in the 1960s and ’70s when Ward-Thomas, writing in The Guardian newspaper, Leonard Crawley in The Daily Telegraph and Henry Longhurst in The Sunday Times (and commentating on television) were nicknamed the “Crazy Gang” and roamed the world transmitting their golf writings back to Britain.
On his many visits to Europe, Bing Crosby got to know Ward-Thomas and, as so many did, became a fan of his writing. Crosby wrote the foreword to one of Ward-Thomas’s anthologies. As their friendship grew Crosby was persuaded to travel up by train from London to visit Ward-Thomas at his home in Norfolk and play a game at Royal West Norfolk, otherwise known as Brancaster, where years later Ward-Thomas would become captain.
“Just one thing Bing,” Ward-Thomas said to Crosby. “I’ll pick you up at King’s Lynn Railway Station and drive you home and when we arrive at my house I would like you to walk up the garden path singing White Christmas. My gardener thinks it is one of the great songs of all time and I would like to see his face when he hears you singing it in person.”
Ward-Thomas recalled often afterwards how much pleasure he got at watching his gardener’s face as he first heard the familiar song, looked around to see where it was coming from and then saw the man himself walking up the garden path. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Ward-Thomas said.
Bing Crosby and Pat Ward-Thomas are long gone but now another Crosby is in Britain to continue the close relationship that exists between that family and this country. Nathaniel Crosby, the sixth and youngest son of Bing, is captaining the US team at the 47th Walker Cup, which starts today at Royal Liverpool, where he had played in the US team that won the 29th Walker Cup in 1983.
“It’s nice to be part of the legacy with my own little contribution. I played the European Tour for three years from 1985 to 1987 … and I was based in Camberley and at the Holiday Inn at Heathrow. I was never dry and I was never warm.” – Nathaniel Crosby
Nathaniel isn’t a token captain, one chosen because of the name of his father, though obviously this hasn’t done him any harm. Nathaniel Crosby deserves the honour of leading his country in this famous amateur event and he is doing so with a smile on his face and an obvious ease with himself and his surroundings that does not come to many.
His father was a good enough golfer to have played in the Amateur, which meant he had a handicap of 3 or better. Nathaniel was more skilful. He won the US Amateur in 1981, was leading amateur at the 1982 US Open and later turned professional and competed on the European Tour with, it must be said, modest success. His best finish was joint third at the 1985 Portuguese Open.
“Are you as much of an Anglophile as your father was?” Nathaniel was asked on a stormy day at mighty Hoylake as white horses danced on the Mersey and a wind rattled the flagpole and the tent guys.
“I would say so,” Crosby replied. “It’s nice to be part of the legacy with my own little contribution. I played the European Tour for three years from 1985 to 1987 … and I was based in Camberley and at the Holiday Inn at Heathrow. I was never dry and I was never warm.”
Nathaniel Crosby may have had a greater connection with both British and US golf writers than many if not all previous Walker Cup captains. “I knew who Pat (Ward-Thomas) was,” Crosby said. “I am sure I have bought a book or two or three of his. I have been lucky through the years to have been in direct contact with more than a few great golf writers. Herbert Warren Wind followed me ’round in the (1982) US Open at Pebble Beach and gave me two or three pages in his book because he happened to catch my second round where I played well. Charlie Price, Dick Taylor, who was the founder of Golf World, and over here Renton (Laidlaw) and Peter Dober (Peter Dobereiner) … who wrote the greatest book on caddies – ever – so I got to know a lot of the great writers. Jim Murray of the LA Times I knew. What was Pat’s era? I probably missed him. I didn’t get direct access to him though obviously I knew who he was.
“After Dad died we found that he had boxed up, had to be 30 full cartons of old newspapers of Jim Murray articles. He’d cut ’em out of the sports pages and saved them. I couldn’t throw away a Jim Murray article. They were too funny. Dad loved great writers.”
The US Walker Cup team landed in Britain a week ago and went to play Wallasey. “Right off the plane,” Crosby said. “No sleep. Hard on me.” They played Royal Birkdale on Sunday and moved to Hoylake on Monday.
One of Bing Crosby’s assets was an easy manner, one that was obvious in the smooth tempo of his swing and in the double act with Bob Hope in the road films they made together. Hope was the sharp-witted, quick-talking one, Crosby this easygoing, pipe-smoking partner.
The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Nathaniel Crosby has his father’s humour. Talking about how his team would need to be able to keep the ball low in the wind, which typically blows over Hoylake, he said: “I can definitely show you (members of his team) how to get the ball on the ground as soon as possible. Just play a few holes with me. The only thing I could say from having played on the European Tour and the Walker Cup over here is probably be aggressive downwind and be a little conservative into the wind. Other than that, I’m not licensed to give advice.”
Asked which type of golf ball his men would be playing, he replied: “I told them to go with the round one.”
It is said that US teams are less familiar with foursomes than singles golf because they play it so rarely. The Americans have lost five of the nine foursomes series in the matches this century. By contrast they have won five and halved one of the nine singles sessions.
It was no surprise then when Crosby said that in their two squad practices, the US team had concentrated on foursomes, or alternate shot as he called it. “We played a lot of alternate shot in our practices last December. I think we played 36 holes a day, three days in a row, alternate shot. Last week, we didn’t play our own ball one time and that was another six rounds of golf. If nothing else we really focused on it.
“It’s not something we grow up doing,” Crosby continued. “But I think we’re prepared and we’ve kind of got our team organised now. We’ve got the right players playing with the right players, a lot of chemistry, a lot of bickering, which makes it healthy. So I think we’re in good shape and we’re optimistic about alternate shot this time.”
Pat Ward-Thomas would have approved of the Americans’ diligence. And Jim Murray would have been funny about it. Could anyone ask for anything more?
Nathaniel Crosby, third from left, poses with US Walker Cup players Alex Smalley, Andy Ogletree and Brandon Wu during Friday’s practice round at Royal Liverpool. Photo: John Mummert, Copyright USGA
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