Museum Moment: Crosby’s Influence Still Felt Today

Jan 21, 2010

By Robert Alvarez, USGA

For the fifth time in its illustrious history, Pebble Beach Golf Links, one of America’s most recognizable golf venues, will host the U.S. Open Championship this June. In addition to hosting numerous USGA championships, Pebble Beach has been the home of an annual celebrity pro-am competition since the 1940s.

In recent years, viewers have tuned in to see George Lopez, Bill Murray and Justin Timberlake, among others, hamming it up on the links with top PGA Tour professionals.

Much of the credit for this annual golf tournament should be given to the man who started it all — Bing Crosby. In 1937, the entertainer brought together a group of his closest Hollywood friends, along with a number of Tour professionals, for what he called a “Clambake,” a golf tournament with a notably festive atmosphere.

An American crooner, Crosby was born Harry Lillis Crosby on May 3, 1903 in Tacoma, Wash., the fourth of seven children. In 1917, Crosby got his first glimpse of show business when he took a summer job at a Spokane auditorium where he was exposed to some of the country’s finest acts, including Al Jolson, who at the time, was one of America’s most popular entertainers.

Crosby began his college education at Gonzaga University in 1920 with the intention of studying law. But after he sent away for a set of mail-order drums, he spent much of his time practicing, later joining a band of mostly high-school students. Crosby eventually dropped out of school and chose to pursue a career in show business.

Crosby worked with several different groups during the 1920s, but found the most success as a solo artist when he signed a contract with CBS Radio in 1931. Ten of the top 50 songs in 1931 featured Crosby. A year later, he starred in his first motion picture, The Big Broadcast. Crosby appeared in 79 films over the course of his career, most notably his Academy Award-winning performance in the 1944 film Going My Way, and its 1945 sequel, The Bells of St. Mary.

Perhaps Crosby’s greatest contribution as a recording artist came in 1942 when he released the single “White Christmas,” written by composer and lyricist Irving Berlin. “White Christmas” remains one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Besides his involvement in the entertainment industry, Crosby was also known as a great American sportsman. He bought his first thoroughbred horse in 1935. Two years later, he became a founding partner in the Del Mar (Calif.) Racetrack and later established a stock farm in Argentina. In August of 1938, Del Mar hosted a match race, pitting Ligaroti, a horse sent from Crosby’s stock farm, against Charles S. Howard’s Seabiscuit. Ligaroti lost.

Crosby also played a role in Major League Baseball, owning a percentage of the Pittsburgh Pirates from the 1940s through the 1960s. He made a cameo appearance in the 1951 film Angels in the Outfield as the Pirates’ owner, a scene featuring Crosby on a golf course.

Crosby’s interest in golf began at age 12 when he worked as a caddie. After briefly quitting the game, his interest piqued again when he played a round with fellow cast members while filming The King of Jazz in 1930.

In 1957, Crosby recorded “Straight Down The Middle,” a theme song for his pro-am tournament, written by Sammy Cahn, with music by James Van Heusen.

‘Straight Down The Middle"

‘Straight down the middle, it went straight down the middle
Then it started to hook just a wee bit
And that’s when the caddy lost sight of it
That little white pellet has never been found to this day
But it went straight down the middle like they say
Whack! Down the fairway, it went straight down the fairway
Then it started to slice just a smidge off line
It headed for two but it bounded off nine
The caddy said long as it’s still on the course you’re okay
Yes it went straight down the middle quite a way
The sun was never brighter, the greens were never greener
And I was never keener to play
I heard it ring down the middle, it went zing down the middle
Oh! The life of a golfer is not all gloom
There’s always the lies in the locker room
And I’m in my glory when wrapped in a towel I say
That it went straight down the middle
And I was great down the middle
Yes it went straight down the middle today’

In addition to being entertaining for audiences, Crosby’s pro-am was evidence that golf could be a philanthropic sport. The tournament has raised millions of dollars for charities. Crosby was a ready participant in numerous charity matches, spreading goodwill throughout the golf community. The Clambake’s success would inspire other celebrities to host PGA Tour events, first with the Bob Hope Desert Classic and later the Andy Williams’ San Diego Open. Sammy Davis Jr. and Glen Campbell also had their names associated with PGA Tour events, and Jamie Farr long associated himself with the LPGA Tour’s stop in Toledo, Ohio. Dinah Shore helped turn a ladies’ professional event in Mission Hills, Calif., into a major championship (now called the Kraft Nabisco Championship).

Not only was Crosby the epitome of a good host, he was also an accomplished player, qualifying for both the British Amateur and U.S. Amateur Championships. He was also one of only a few players to make a hole-in-one on famed Cypress Point Club’s 16th hole. His son, Nathaniel, claimed the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1981 at The Olympic Club, not far from his northern California home.

Crosby passed away in 1977, after completing a round of golf in Madrid, Spain, at the age of 74.

In 1978 the USGA presented Crosby posthumously, along with his counterpart, Bob Hope, the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship in golf. They remain the only entertainers to receive the USGA’s highest honor.

Among its thousands of pieces of golf history, the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History in Far Hills, N.J., maintains a collection of dozens of pieces of sheet music with golf-related themes, including "Straight Down the Middle."

Robert Alvarez is the USGA Museum’s Collections Manager. E-mail him with questions or comments at ralvarez@usga.org.