News & Opinion

Army vet/PGA pro left century of lessons

Gus Andreone was not your average PGA of America golf professional.

As you recline on your couch today, the day when we observe Veterans Day, he is one of the heroes you should remember.

Andreone fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and was awarded three Bronze Stars. He never considered himself a hero, however, always insisting instead that the real heroes were the men who didn’t make it back from the battlefield.

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Gus Andreone

There were some modest headlines when the 107-year-old Andreone died Oct. 27 in Sarasota, Fla., after a massive stroke.

He gained a small amount of celebrity in recent years as the oldest living PGA of America member. He was a PGA pro for more than 79 years, the third-longest run in PGA history and, by the way, one year more than the great Gene Sarazen.

Andreone earned a little more golf fame when he made a hole-in-one at 103 and was documented as golf’s oldest ace-maker. He used a driver at the 114-yard 14th hole at Palm Aire’s Lakes Course in Sarasota, Fla., and beat his age by 20 strokes that day, shooting 83.

Last year, at 106, Andreone received the Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor for military and civil achievement. France’s consulate general traveled to Florida to present Andreone with the award, which was inaugurated in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Now Andreone’s name is on a prestigious list of diverse winners such as inventor Alexander Graham Bell, explorer Jacques Cousteau, Army generals Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, and singer Bob Dylan.

Still, none of those accomplishments earned Andreone’s death more than a medium-sized blurb. He deserves a better tribute.

His remarkable life story is the stuff of a Hollywood movie script. But it might be a long movie – it would have to cover 107 years.

Golf was at the core of Andreone’s early life. He was born in 1911 in Bellaire, Ohio, and soon moved to the Pittsburgh area, where his father was a coal miner. At 12, Andreone began to caddie at St. Clair Country Club, earning 60 cents a bag. He dropped out of Bridgeville High School to get a job and help his family, which included three brothers and three sisters, pay the bills.

Andreone walked five miles to the golf course each day and pulled down $30 a month cleaning clubs and caddieing. He was a good player, too, and by 1932 had become an assistant pro. He started giving lessons two years later and earned his PGA of America status in 1939.

Then World War II intervened. In 1942, Andreone was drafted into the Army at age 31.

Eventually, in 1944, he was sent to Cherbourg, France, and was soon in the 61st Armored Infantry Battalion, part of Patton’s 10th Armored Division. They were known as the Ghost Division because they removed all insignia and identification from their uniforms in order to confuse the enemy.

“We moved quickly, and we marched through the cold, cold night,” Andreone said.

In the last days of 1944, Andreone was in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last desperate gamble to prolong the war. Artillery shells pounded Andreone’s outfit relentlessly.

“I’m lying with my head down,” Andreone told an interviewer in 2017. “My lieutenant is lying beside me. The shelling stops. I get up; he doesn’t.”

The Germans launched more attacks. Andreone remembered a machine-gunner dying in his arms and then, not long after, an estimated 1,500 Germans marching out of the trees to surrender.

“I kept thinking of that young man who died,” Andreone said, “and thinking that all this happened an hour later.”

Andreone acted quickly and stepped in to take over as section leader when his group’s staff sergeant suffered a nervous breakdown during a heavy bombardment. Suddenly, he had 16 men under his command.

The 10th Armored Division went on to capture the fortress at Metz. In one episode, Andreone went up to the fourth story of a building to scout German positions. He turned into a target instead.

“The Germans waited until I was upstairs,” Andreone said. “They could see me through the windows. They fired 88s [88-millimeter anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery] into that building. It blew my ears out. The ringing lasted for several weeks.”

But Andreone’s intel helped the Americans knock out four tanks.

He had another brush with danger while hanging on the side of a half-track that carried two 50-gallon gas tanks and a load of mines and mortar shells. The vehicle took a direct hit on the rear left side from friendly fire. Miraculously, there were no casualties.

Andreone, who rose to the rank of staff sergeant, believed it was divine intervention that he escaped unscathed.

He returned to America on a troop ship in 1945 and had an emotional moment in New York Harbor when the ship approached the Statue of Liberty. “I thought I would never see her again,” Andreone said.

After the war, Andreone couldn’t wait to get back to golf. He became the head golf professional in 1947 at Edgewood Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh and once hosted a visitor who also was a member of the 10th Armored Division: former Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Andreone, a great ambassador of golf as a pro and teacher, retired from Edgewood in 1977, the same year that he lost his wife, Henrietta, to cancer. He moved to Florida in 1986, three years after buying a winning Pennsylvania Lottery ticket that paid him $1,000 a week for life. Lottery officials probably didn’t expect to have Andreone collect for 35 years. He pocketed more than $1.8 million.

That ace he made at 103 was his eighth. It came 75 years after his first one. His second wife, Betty, whom he married in 1985, also made three aces and had a cameo in the movie “Caddyshack.”

“If you watch the scene where the candy bar is in the water,” Andreone told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year, “you see a lady coming out of the pool in a straw hat. That was my wife.”

Andreone had a love affair with golf. He liked its challenge and enjoyed giving lessons and rubbing elbows with his fellow club pros – “the doctors of golf,” he called them.

Even in retirement, Andreone often gave lessons and helped area pros run tournaments. Though he didn’t have any children of his own, Andreone is survived by 13 nephews and nieces, and Betty, who is 101. “He taught all of us to play,” nephew Rob Andreone told the Post-Gazette’s obituary writer. “Golf was his passion.”

Andreone played golf three times a week as late as last year, and in a 2011 video interview, the 100-year-old said, “As long as I can swing a club, I’ll be playing golf.”

The game, he added, was “about enjoying the day and the scenery and the course and the people you’re playing with.”

Andreone did that longer and better than anyone.

On Veterans Day, he is worth remembering. Gus Andreone was an extraordinary PGA club professional. His was a life well-lived.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle