A hometown remembers Andy Bean, the big man with a heart of gold

LAKELAND, Fla. – Gary Koch’s favorite Andy Bean story happened back when they were University of Florida teammates competing at the Chris Schenkel Invitational in Statesboro, Georgia. Koch watched from the fairway as an angry Bean appeared to take a bite out of a balata ball after missing a short putt. A curious Koch searched for the ball in the bushes by the green.

“Sure enough, I find this Titleist 3 with a big chunk out of it, just like an apple,” Koch said with a laugh.

Woody Blackburn roomed with Bean at Florida and recalled the time Bean picked up a baby racoon on the way home from practice and housed him in an empty golf bag.

“I can train him,” Bean insisted after the animal had soiled his dorm bed. “He’ll be fine.”

The Bean stories were flowing Monday at Grasslands Golf and Country Club in Lakeland, Florida, where Bean and his wife, Debbie, lived on the back nine. Not long after Bean died from complications from double lung replacement surgery last October at the age of 70, friends came together to organize the Andy Bean Memorial Golf Tournament, benefitting the local First Tee program. The event sold out in less than a week.

Debbie Bean posts with her seven grandchildren at the Andy Bean Memorial Golf Tournament. (photo credit: Clare Naponick)

Bean moved to Lakeland from Jekyll Island, Georgia, as a teenager and after a successful stint at Florida, the big man with soft hands and a high fade joined the PGA Tour in 1976, winning 11 tournaments over span of a decade. While he never won a major, Bean finished runner-up three times and represented the U.S. on two Ryder Cup teams (1979 and 1987).

At Grasslands, his three daughters wore Ryder Cup sweatshirts they’d uncovered that had their dad’s name stretched across the back. His seven grandkids – who range in age from 5 to 10 – wore shirts that said “Team Dodad.”

“It’s overwhelming to see everything that they have put together today,” said Bean’s eldest daughter, Lauren Cushenbery.

“There’s so much gratitude in who he was as my dad and who he was to so many, just the love that is coming full circle in this.”

Always looking out for others

Andy Bean was the kind of guy who carried a tow rope in the back of his truck to help those stranded on the side of the road. He did the same in the Florida Everglades with his boat, often rescuing those stuck on a sand bar.

He’d often anonymously pay for the meals of firefighters and police officers. And after coming one stroke shy at the 1983 British Open, he bought an electric wheelchair for a little girl he’d seen in the gallery all week being pushed up and down the hills by her parents.

“He just had a heart for helping others,” said Debbie, “especially children.”

While still competing on the PGA Tour Champions, Bean was instrumental in raising funds for the First Tee of Lakeland through the Barkley, Bean, Bryant and Friends celebrity event, which raised millions over the course of 15 years.

T.J. Wright was 9 years old the first time he held a golf club at the First Tee in Lakeland. Bean paid for Wright’s membership to the local par-3 course and watched him compete in junior tournaments.

“He was a male figure in my life that I looked up to that I didn’t have in my personal life,” said a now 27-year-old Wright who serves as executive director of the First Tee program.

“The way that he cared about the game and cared about other kids, wherever they came from in the community, was very inspiring to me, and one of the reasons I wanted to come back and work at the First Tee and be a part of it.”

For Monday’s auction, Jack Nicklaus, who along with wife Barbara, came to Bean’s funeral, donated a signed replica of the 1-iron he used in 1972 to birdie the 17th hole at Pebble Beach en route to his third of four U.S. Open titles.

Koch, a six-time winner on the PGA Tour and television broadcaster, donated a foursome for golf and lunch with him at Old Memorial in Tampa. Close friend David Leadbetter donated a two-hour lesson.

In the early days of Leadbetter’s teaching career, he worked out of the Andy Bean Golf Studio at Grenelefe in Haines City, Florida. It was Bean who invited Leadbetter to his first Masters Tournament. They drove around for an hour early week in search of good barbeque and a Dairy Queen.

“He was sort of like the Buffalo Bill of the Tour,” said Leadbetter, “throwing alligators into the lake and biting golf balls.”

Former Florida teammate Fred Ridley, who currently serves as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, made the trip over to Lakeland, where he was born and lived until age 8. Ridley, who then moved to nearby Winter Haven, played high school golf against Bean and later teamed up with him in college.

When Ridley won the U.S. Amateur in 1975, he met Bean in the semifinals at the Country Club of Virginia. After finding the long rough on the par-5 16th, a confident Bean pulled a 3-iron and took aim at the green, which was guarded by a large overhanging oak tree. The ball rattled around in the tree for a bit before tumbling out on the front of the green.

Bean won the hole, but it wasn’t enough to win the match. During the post-round interview, Ridley said a reporter asked Bean if it had been foolish to try to hit that shot from the rough.

“Andy kind of looked at this guy and said, ‘Mister, there’’s no damn tree in the state of Virginia that could stop Andy Bean’s golf ball,'” recalled Ridley with a smile.

“That was Andy Bean.”

2007 U.S. Senior Open winner Brad Bryant gives a clinic before a charity outing at Grasslands Golf and Country Club honoring Andy Bean. (photo credit: Clare Naponick)

Koch said the 6-foot-4 Bean hitting some of the prettiest long iron shots he’d ever seen at Florida, fading 2-irons and 3-irons that started low and dropped down softly like a feather.

“He was long before we knew what long was,” said Koch.

Bean met his wife Debbie on a short Delta flight. With no ice on the plane, the young flight attendant worried that a host of complaints from thirsty PGA Tour players might cost her a job. Instead, Bean asked if they could have dinner when he was back in Atlanta.

Friends say having three daughters softened Bean, whose world in his later years centered around family, faith and giving back.

A broken wrist from a car accident ultimately brought Beans’ competitive career to a close in 2014 after three wins on the PGA Tour Champions. Still, he was a mainstay on the golf course, quick to offer tips to juniors and college players in town, even after a battle with COVID-19 wrecked his lungs and left him on an oxygen tank. If someone needed help. Bean was there.

Rick Nolte, owner of the local golf shop in town, said Bean loved to tinker with his clubs and would drop by when he reached the point that he needed help.

“He’d sit behind the counter somedays,” said Nolte, “and people would come in and do a double-, triple-take and whisper, ‘That’s Andy Bean.’ ”

Brad Bryant started fishing with Bean in 1980, and the pair spent a good deal of time together after Bryant moved to Lakeland. They had one special spot in Hawaii where they loved to bone fish on a mud flap. Late one afternoon, with the sun setting along the horizon line, Bean spotted four bone fish coming Bryant’s way.

But it was the way that Bean helped him catch those fish – by climbing 15 feet up a tree – that stands out.

“That was Andy Bean,” said Bryant. “Andy would go to great lengths to help you do things that you wanted to do, that not many people would.”

That’s how he’ll be remembered in his hometown: The big man with the heart of gold.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek