Golf Holds Strong in Heart of Oldest PGA Member
By Adam Schupak
They called Gus Andreone the Night Rider. The colorful nickname was bestowed upon him as a 15-year-old caddie at Pittsburgh’s St. Clair Country Club because of his willingness to loop for a member named Dr. Goldman in the day’s last, feeble light. For years, the caddie yard was the academy from which underprivileged students graduated into the game. Andreone’s family was so poor that his shoes had holes in the soles. One time, to quicken the pace, he picked up the doctor’s ball with his toes and advanced it some 50 yards. Dinner was calling.
“He had no idea,” Andreone recalled. “He said, ‘I’m hitting that ball pretty long.’ I got a kick out of that.”
The caddie yard gave Andreone a place where he felt welcome and a sense of purpose. It also instilled in him a dream to make a living at the game he loved and not as a coal miner like his father or in a mill like his older brothers. Today, Andreone, who turned 104 on Oct. 11, is the oldest PGA member. He is the living embodiment of the PGA, having seen as much change in the game as anyone since the humble beginnings of the PGA 100 years ago.
So many of his stories begin with the phrase, “In my day.” He learned the game when hickory was still king, with right-handed clubs because lefties were in short supply. It was a time before irrigation, with buckets of sand and water awaiting groups on every tee, and when a 250-yard drive was considered a wallop.
“Nowadays, these fellas can do that with an iron,” he said.
Being around the game was enough incentive to arouse the excitable curiosity of a teenage boy. He picked up his swing by studying the technique and habits of better players. Soon, the course became a magnet.
He went from earning 60 cents a bag to $30 a month tending to the shop, and was still a second assistant on the day he gave his first lesson to Mrs. A.C. Clarke. Afterward, she patted him on the back and thanked him for the lesson. “Right then I knew,” Andreone said. “That was it. Golf would be my life.”
He served a five-year apprenticeship and was elected to PGA membership on May 30, 1939. Even when he joined the military and served under Gen. George S. Patton in the “Ghost Division” that helped liberate Europe in World War II, golf was never far from his mind. When his tour of duty ended in 1946, his captain urged him to re-enlist.
“I told him I had some unfinished business,” Andreone said.
Golf became his passport to live the American Dream. Back to St. Clair CC he went and, in 1947, Edgewood Country Club in Pittsburgh offered him its head job. He spent the next 30 years of his life there. He loved nothing more than teaching. Andreone never forgot the lessons that he learned attending the PGA’s first national teaching clinic in 1941. It was hosted by Horton Smith, the first winner of the Masters and PGA president from 1952 to 1954, and it shaped Andreone’s philosophy. He approached his work with a simple, irrefutable motto: “If your members are happy, it makes you feel that way, too.”
In his day, the pro owned the shop, and no self-respecting member would dare buy a driver from a discount retailer. Andreone attended the first PGA Merchandise Show in 1954 in Dunedin, Fla., and countless more thereafter. When it came to selling sets of clubs, Andreone was ahead of the times. He substituted a 5-wood for a 2-wood in the days when it was customary to sell the 1-2-3-4 woods as a set, and he replaced the 2-iron with an extra wedge.
“How many members could hit a 2-iron?” he reasoned. Andreone also was a trailblazer in hiring women. “I needed someone to be able to go in the dressing room with women,” he said. “Anyone without a woman working in the shop was losing sales.”
When he retired from Edgewood in 1977, the members feted him. He has spent his golden years in Sarasota, Fla., and remained active in the game. He still breaks his age at Palm Aire Country Club three times a week from the green tees – “If I don’t, I had a bad day,” he said – and became the oldest to record a hole-in-one, his eighth, on Dec. 17, 2014.
To Andreone, there’s no doubt that golf has contributed to his longevity. He does a series of exercises before he gets out of bed. Crossword puzzles have kept his mind sharp. He rides a stationary bicycle for a half-hour daily and swims regularly.
Andreone’s first wife, Henrietta, died of breast cancer in 1977. Betty, his second wife, is 84. Andreone proudly notes that Betty also is a figure of some note in golf circles. Betty was the shop manager at Plantation (Fla.) Preserve Golf Course when she landed a role in “Caddyshack.” That’s Betty in the brown bathing suit before mayhem ensues in the pool scene.
“The Night Rider” had his driver’s license renewed, through 2021, when he would be 110. When he’s not driving a cart with a handicap flag, he’s behind the wheel of a red Cadillac. In his day, as head professional, he drove a Chevy.
“Why do you think I did that?” Andreone asked. “Because if the members see you driving a Cadillac, they’ll think you’re making too much money.”
Spoken like a pro’s pro. “Golf is my heart,” he said, and it’s still going strong.