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Crosby returns for a look back

Nathaniel Crosby slipped onto the first tee Wednesday at Niagara Falls Country Club under the cover of time. The only obvious intrigue was him among the older players in the Porter Cup, an ordinary-looking 40-something in a navy shirt and tan khakis competing against young guns in a major amateur golf tournament.

Twenty-five years ago, he walked in their shoes. He won the 1981 U.S. Amateur at the Olympic Club when he was 19. He was the top amateur in the 1982 U.S. Open at his beloved Pebble Beach Golf Links. A few months later, he won the Porter Cup. He played in the 1983 Walker Cup and was ranked third in the country. And he quickly disappeared.

Crosby returned Wednesday at age 45. He's a successful businessman and the father of four kids and two step-children, between the ages of 11 and 16, in what he called a "Brady Bunch deal." He was celebrating the silver anniversary of his last major victory by accepting the lifetime exemption that accompanied the title.

And he was trying to get his game in order before the U.S. Amateur, which returns next month to Olympic, in an effort to find peace. It was hard to believe a quarter-century had passed but with Crosby came a cautionary tale. The game gives and takes away. He birdied two of the first three holes en route to a 78 Wednesday, 14 strokes off the lead.

"It's neat to be around the kids, but the reality is only a percentage of them are going to become great players," Crosby said. "The others ones are going to have to find their way. Golf will be a very productive element in helping them. Some of them are going to be tomorrow's superstars."

Amateur success doesn't always translate to professional stardom. For every Porter Cup winner such as David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Robert Gamez and Scott Verplank who made a good living on the PGA Tour, there are many more who were a champion for a day and gone the next. Crosby spent three years on the European tour in the 1980s and vanished into golf's backdrop.

Presumably, you didn't know much about Crosby, but to suggest he became a no-name would be grossly inaccurate. Perhaps you've heard of his late father, Harry Lillis Crosby. He was a singer and actor who also was known as Bing.

Nathaniel was 16 when his father died after playing a round of golf in 1977. Bing Crosby loved golf the way women loved him. He played host to the National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach until he died. Bing passed golf to Nathaniel and passed away without seeing what it gave him.

Nathaniel Crosby's professional career petered out the way they often do. He was 85th on the European money list that included Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. He fell to 105th his second year, 150th in his third and unceremoniously dropped into the real world his fourth.

But golf helped him find his way, allowed him to make a terrific living. He joined a group of partners who bought Toney Penna Golf, which evolved into Jack Nicklaus Golf Equipment. He joined Orlimar Golf, which had $1 million in sales before he arrived and reached $100 million in his first year.

He's a partner in The Golf Agency, an advertising and marketing firm that works with The Golf Channel on everything from equipment to real estate. Think: golf infomercials.

On Wednesday, the 1-handicapper was back at Niagara Falls Country Club. It was, if nothing else, about time.

"I'm not entertaining the idea of turning pro anymore," Crosby said. "I'm thinking like a kid just for showing up and thinking I can play with these guys. A lot has happened. I've learned a lot along the way. Golf is still an important part of my everyday life."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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