Larger Than Life
Andy Bean was a giant in every sense of the word, an immense talent with a straight-at-you manner who never forgot his roots
By Michael Bamberger
After the second World War, a million U.S. soldiers came home, bought homes and TVs, took up golf and raised sons with U.S. Open dreams. The Eisenhower years, with some wiggle room on either side of them, were sweet-spot years for golfers-in-training. Tom Watson, born in 1949, will tell you that. Curtis Strange, born in ’55, will, too. Ditto for Paul Azinger, born in ’60. You didn’t have to be a rich kid to make it in golf. You didn’t need to run a 4.5 40. But you did need the ability to make free throws and shoot pool and the desire to stay on the putting green until the cows came home. You needed the gift of eye-hand coordination, and whatever gene it is that covers desire.
While we’re at it:
Fred Ridley, the Augusta National chairman, was born in ’52. So was Gary Koch, the longtime tournament player and golf commentator. Andy Bean, PGA Tour star of the Watson heyday, was born in ’53. So was Steve Smyers, an accomplished golf-course architect. As it happens, all four of these men were on the University of Florida golf team in 1973, when the Gators won the NCAA team title. Bean was the star, and Phil Hancock and Woody Blackburn, future Tour players, were far more than bit players. Their coach, Buster Bishop, was a lifer and a bear.
When Andy Bean died on Oct. 14, at age 70, a green sliver of this spinning-top world suddenly stopped. AHN-deh-Beeen, as he sang his own name, introducing himself at a thousand pro-ams, as if the assembled car dealers and insurance agents did not know. Bean was always a giant, with a big head and a lot of red hair. He was a charter member of the Last Days of Persimmon Men’s Club. A big man and a bigger presence. You talk about country strong. In John Daly-Andy Bean, I’m taking Bean now and forever, though there are some similarities, for greenside touch and high-fade distance most particularly.
When Bean got on Tour in 1976, he was a small-town Floridian by way of rural Georgia. He was a redneck. By that I mean the man had a red neck, a nightly steak once he had some money, a fierce competitive streak and a warm and direct manner. Also, more fishing rods and hunting rifles than your local Dick’s.
You couldn’t not like him. Everybody who watched the CBS golf telecasts liked him and everybody who worked them did, too. Everybody knew some half-true story about Andy wrestling an alligator, or was it a wild boar or a hammerhead shark? He was comfortable in any part of the Florida Everglades and on any Florida course with Bermuda-grass greens. He grew up on Bermuda. You only have one first love and one first home.
Bean won 11 times on Tour between 1977 and ’86 and contended often. He was in the mix in a handful of majors. He had the heaviest bag on Tour. He always brought the umbrella, even in the dry heat of the desert tournaments, which is kind of funny, because in college he sometimes played with 13 clubs, unable to find a sand wedge he liked, and now and again 12, after a shaft-snap. Arnold Palmer was using aluminum shafts for a while and Bean followed him. The clubs may not have been the best, but Andy liked the association.
He was the son of a pro who contended in four PGA Championships, had three children (daughters), made two Ryder Cup teams (a win and a loss) and had one wife (a saint). Debbie Bean was a flight attendant when young Andy made his yes-or-no-babe move. Yes, Andy Bean married a flight attendant and it was forever. Brooks Robinson, the same. Mike Krzyzewski, the same. Air travel was once a romantic and glamorous thing, and even star golfers flew commercial, courtesy-car drivers dropping off big-name Tour players at Delta terminals one Sunday night after another.
He grew up in Lakeland, an orange-grove town in the center of Florida. He went to Lakeland High School. Fred Ridley went to high school down the road, in Winter Haven, where his father was a school-district administrator. When Fred was a high school senior, Andy was a junior, and nobody in Polk County was beating Andy Bean in golf. Andy’s father, Tommy, built a nine-hole course called Jekyll-Hyde, draining a Lakeland swamp himself for it. At its peak the course had 12 holes. “The golf shop at Jekyll-Hyde is strictly functional,” Barry McDermott wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1979. “The clothing rack has only one dusty windbreaker for sale, and on a wall a sign advertises 7 LESSONS $35—RESULTS GUARANTEED.” Tommy’s son, Thomas Andrew Bean, was similarly sure of himself.
Ridley went from Winter Haven High to the University of Florida, and one year later Bean did the same, only from Lakeland. You wouldn’t say he followed him there. Andy Bean didn’t follow anybody, and even the senior Bean found it impossible to caddie for his son. Ridley, the other day, was remembering practice rounds in Gainesville: “He’d say, ‘I’ll play you, you and you, your best ball against me.’” Confidence was not an issue, backed by unusual skill. “I’m quite sure I never played in any tournament where I finished ahead of him,” Ridley said. Until the day Ridley did.
That day came one hot afternoon at the U.S. Amateur, late-summer, 1975, at the Country Club of Virginia. Ridley had recently finished his first year of law school at Stetson. Bean had graduated from Florida and was a pro-in-waiting, learning to temper his red-ass streak. (It was always self-directed. Jay Haas will sometimes tell the story about the time Bean bit off a piece of a golf ball in a college tournament.) Earlier, in the summer of ‘75, Bean had won the Western Amateur. Ridley had been taking lessons from Jack Grout (Jack Nicklaus’s lifelong teacher) and his golf was getting better, but talent being talent and history being history, there was no way he was going to beat Bean in their semifinal match in the suffocating heat of such grand event. Most anybody who was there would have told you that. But this golf—sometimes the game seems to have a mind of its own. Ridley had already defeated Curtis Strange, a son of Virginia, to advance. The commonwealth mourned.
Bean, in those days, was called Mongo by some, a name borrowed from a character played by the NFL lineman Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, who knocks out a horse with a single right, a punch to the neck. When Bean played Ridley, he expected he’d knock out Ridley by way of his trusty driver.
Bean was 2 down as the two stood on the 16th tee, a 535-yard par-5. For Ridley, it was a three-shot hole, and with the honor, he hit an iron in play. “The rough was brutal,” Ridley said. “But Andy’s hitting driver all day.” If Bean drove it in play on 16, he could easily have reached in two, and maybe he would have been only 1 down standing on 17 tee.
“He drives it in this rough that has to be 5 inches, he’s got trees between him and the green and still takes out a 3-iron,” Ridley said, remembering the moment with pleasure and awe. You can imagine the slashing swing. But Bean could only match Ridley’s 5, and Ridley closed out the match on 17. An upset.
“One of the writers asked Andy about that second shot on 16,” Ridley recalled, “and Andy said, ‘Mister, there is no damn tree in the state of Virginia that can stop Andy Bean’s golf ball.’”
To a small group of University of Florida golfers, that quote followed Bean around for the rest of his life. Those 18 words were Andy Bean, at least as he was then.
The last time I saw Bean was at the 2022 Bay Hill tournament. He was sitting inside the ropes, on the grass, about 30 yards short of the 18th green. Beside him was a slender Black teenager, skinny as a 1-iron, as golfers used to say, wearing a T-shirt and a tournament lanyard around his neck. The young man was new to golf, and by extension this whole Tour-on-a-Sunday scene, with Andy as his Tour guide. If you have ever been to Bay Hill or most any PGA Tour event, you may know that you don’t often see Black teenagers at them. Andy and this young man were plopped down in Bay Hill’s first cut, watching the parade go by.
I introduced myself. We know a lot of the same people, including my friends Mike Donald and Billy Britton (both born in ’55) and Kevin Morris, Andy’s Florida teammate and a member of the 1951 birth class. I caddied for Kevin at the ’85 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills, where Andy finished third, one of his eight top-10 finishes in the 53 majors in which he played.
Andy was Andy. He was gentle and friendly and very, very big. His hands were the same as forever. About the size of an old-timey baseball glove, sunbaked, as rough as a lizard’s. His hair had gone from bright orange to bright white.
Bean died in the aftermath of a bad case of Covid. The virus had damaged his lungs, leading to lung-replacement surgery that, in the end, could not save his large life.
In the weeks before and after that surgery, Andy’s daughter Lauren sent out regular email updates to the members of the ’73 Florida team, a reunion of sorts for Fred Ridley and Steve Smyers and Gary Koch and Kevin Morris and the others. You know how it is with college bonds: sometimes, they are forever. When Buster Bishop died in 2004, Andy spoke, movingly and without notes, at his old coach’s funeral. Buster was like a second father to Andy.
It’s amazing to think of the range of golfing lives that came out of that 1973 Florida team. Kevin Morris had a long career as a club pro. Steve Smyers has designed or renovated dozens of courses. Gary Koch won six times on Tour and had a longer second career covering golf for NBC Sports. Fred Ridley became the president of the USGA and later the chairman of Augusta National.
In 1975, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur meant an automatic invitation to the next year’s Masters, provided you maintained your amateur status. Ridley played in the ’76 Masters with the defending champion, Big Jack himself. Bean was not in the field. It was his rookie year on Tour.
Andy Bean had an upright swing and a weak grip and he could hit a high fade with 13 clubs, in the Nicklaus tradition. Smyers met him on his first day at the Florida golf course in 1971 and was mesmerized as he watched Bean practice pitch shots on a makeshift driving range. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, a man-child with so much strength and so much touch. Usually, we all know, a golfer has one or the other.
Smyers and Bean were roommates in college and lived near one another for decades in Lakeland. A few days after Andy’s death, I called Steve to talk about his friend and teammate. Steve told me about Andy’s daily card game at Lone Palm, a golf club in Lakeland that Steve renovated. I told Steve about the scene I had stumbled upon at Bay Hill, Andy with his young friend, on their Sunday outing.
When the two met, Andy had three interests: hunting and fishing and golf. Over the past half-century, Andy occupied himself with other things: his children and grandchildren, his church and the First Tee program in Lakeland. Steve didn’t know who the teenager was that day at Bay Hill, but he had two guesses: somebody connected to Andy’s church or to Andy’s First Tee.
I looked up the Lakeland First Tee and called its executive director, T.J. Wright.
“I was there that Sunday at Bay Hill,” Wright told me. He was 9 when he met Andy and now he’s 28. He played on a high school golf team that won the Polk County title four straight years, and golf had been an elemental part of his life since the day he first picked up a club.
“I remember the kid you’re talking about,” Wright said. “He and Andy were right by the grandstand, left side of 18, just like you’re saying. Andy wasn’t on the respirator yet. I remember all of that. I don’t know who the kid was, but I do remember thinking, ‘I was once that kid.’ Andy’s thing was to put a golf club in a kid’s hands.”
That’s it. You put a golf club in a kid’s hands and you see what happens.
“When I was 11 and starting out in golf, I got to go to this pro-am,” Wright said. “Charles Barkley was there and Brad Bryant and a bunch of other guys, including Andy. They had the celebrity ropes up and all of that.”
Brad Bryant (born in 1954) played the Tour for years and won the U.S. Senior Open in 2007. You can imagine young T.J.’s awe, playing in the 2009 Barkley, Bean, Bryant & Friends tournament, a First Tee of Lakeland fundraiser.
“Andy came up to me and put his arm on my shoulder and just rested it there,” Wright recalled. “And when he did that, I knew I wanted to be in golf for the rest of my life.”
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]