The latest hot item on the pro golf tour is Andy Bean, a big guy with a red haystack of hair. He has won two straight tournaments coming into the U.S. Open here this week. For kicks, Bean bites golf balls in two. Spying an alligator in the rough one day, he grabbed the poor thing by the tail and flipped it aside. Bean is sometimes called Li'l Abner.

His banker calls him Mr. Bean. He is the second-leading money winner on tour this year with $187,509. Of that, $110,000 has come the last two weeks from victories in Charlotte and Memphis. He is the trousered answer to Nancy Lope, who has won four in a row. "Let me drive it and Nancy put it, we'd be hell to beat," Bean said yesterday.

The U.S. Open is a measure of golfing greatness and yields only reluctantly to the fad of the moment. Just because a player has driven the ball six miles to a dime-wide target in Charlotte and putted marbles into oil barrels at Memphis means nothing this week, for the Open is as much a test of character as skill. Only the strong-willed win.

Andy Bean learned that in last year's Open. One shot behind the leader going into the final 18 holes, Bean shot a 79 and finished 23rd. His creation of that ghastly round was no surprise. He then harbored atemper that from time to time escaped its cage and bit deeply into his hindquarters. With golf's greatest prize available, Bean let loose his temper. It hurt a lot.

At the sixth hole, a 175-yard par 3, Bean struck the necessary seven-iron shot. "Just as I hit it, a gust of wind came up," Bean said. "It flew over the green."

The resulting bogey put Bean three over par for the day. "On the next hole, I was steamed," he said. That melancholy condition lasted all day long. One of golf's streak players, capable of birdies by the nestful, Bean didn't make a birdie that day. Flames leaped from his eyes. "I was trying to kill every shot. If I didn't make birdie, the hell with it."

Now having reached the statesman's age of 25, Bean said he has discovered, in the last year, that anger is a destructive emotion. That's why he has won tournaments the last two weeks, he said, and why he figures he has as good as chance as anyone of winning this U.S. Open.

"The last three rounds at Memphis, I started over par every day," he said. "In the past, I'd have tried to force myself to get birdies. I'm not doing that now. I'm keeping a clear head, not getting that excited."

Bean's temper has not been tamed, as we shall see later, but he does have it on a shorter leash.

"When you hit a bad shot, don't say a thing, just start walking," he said, explaining his new self-control.

Sounds nice.


But did you hear Andy Bean on the tube from Memphis?

During the last round, when Bean battled Jim Simons for the lead, innocents of the world were shocked to hear the Lord's name shouted into a microphone, soon followed by remarks scatological in nature. These soliloguies were prompted by the sight of Simons' tee shot whistling through a tree top without so much as nicking a leaf.

Some people recognized the faceless voice as that of Andy Bean, who might have been rooting for Simons' shot to be swallowed alive by a passing eagle.

"Me? Not me," Bean said with a telling smile. "Why, if it had been me, don't you think the commissioner of golf would have sent me a letter of reprimand? I haven't gotten any letter. Couldn't have been me."

But, Andy, the mails are slow nowadays.

"Oh," he said.

Bobby Jones, the patron saint of golf, preceded his canonization with a childhood spent in anger. Lucky the golf club that eluded punishment for its misdeeds in Jones' hand. Golf does that to nice people who like to win. So it is with Andy Bean, as comfortable a good ol' boy as you'll ever meet - providing you don't meet him the day he double-bogeys his way out of victory.

"In the Open last year, after that par 3, I could have coasted and finished, oh, eighth, but I'm not that way," Bean said. "I went ahead and tried to win the tournament. Who cares if you finish eighth? Nobody comes up and says, 'Nice eighth.' The only thing I care about is winning."

He has done a good job of winning. As an amateur in Florida and later at the University of Florida, Bean did well in national events, winning often enough to try the tour in 1976. He refers to that rookie year as "the Bean Depression." He won $10,761, which isn't bad for a beginner.

The next year, he won a tournament and earned $127,312. Quickly, he has become one of the tour's delights, a 6-foot-4, 212-pound redhead who can hit a golf ball great distances. (He won at Charlotte with drives of 330 yards, he said.) He is unique in his mandibular destruction of golf balls. (He first bit into one on a dare, truly slicing the cover.) And no one, not even Jack Nicklaus, has improved his lie by removing an alligator. ("Just loosening the guys up," Bean said.)

Trifles those last distinctions are, for what marks Andy Bean memorable is the depth of his desire. Perhaps it first took form at age 12 on Jekyll Island, Ga., where his father, a gold pro, announced one day," I gave your clubs away because you're not using them."

Andy had played golf since he was 4. For a week or so, however, he had been with buddies, hunting and fishing. His father wouldn't let him play golf for three weeks.

"Then he said, 'I found a set of clubs for you.' He'd never admit it now, but I think he had them ordered all along. I went onto the course at 12:30 in the afternoon and played 54 holes. The last three holes, I played in the dark.

"My dad was letting me make my own choice about golf. And from that time on, I've never lost the desire."