Colin Burns is general manager of one of the world’s most storied clubs in golf. As Winged Foot prepares to host the US Open, he reveals the club is built on the sport’s traditions, but also on fun
Sammy would rarely fail to greet him on his trips to the gym. “He wears a T-shirt that says ‘Be the reason why someone smiles today’.
“Even at my advanced career,” reflects Colin Burns, “I still look for touch points like that – things to remind me about what we do.
“And what we do is hopefully make people a little bit happier.”
As general manager of Winged Foot, Burns has spent nearly three decades at the helm of one of the globe’s most revered clubs.
With its East and West courses, the New York venue has hosted PGA Championships and, in September, will stage its sixth US Open after it was rescheduled as result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite being utterly grounded in the history of American golf – Bobby Jones was its first major champion – Winged Foot is still at its heart a members’ club.
But while its gloriously scholastic clubhouse might imply a certain way of looking at the world, what happens behind those doors might surprise you.
“I’ve been to plenty of very famous golf clubs and some of them are very welcoming and some of them are not,” Burns explains.
“We’re very welcoming. If you were to walk through the lobby now, and you looked a little bit lost then somebody, rather than ask in a sort of accusatory manner, ‘Why are you here? What are you doing?’, would say, ‘How are you? Who is your host today? Come on in.’”
He adds: “One of the things that makes Winged Foot very unique at that level of club is that’s it’s really a fun place.
“You can go to other clubs and the fun factor is just not there. It’s not a country club, it is a golf club but we really do encourage the membership to use the facility – to be there, to bring their families, their children, their colleagues from work.”
Traditions are important to Winged Foot. You can see that just from the archives and mementos celebrating the giants of the game who have lifted trophies on the grounds.
But Burns’ ethos is not to let those things define the club. Nowhere is that seen more prominently than in the attitude to phones.
“We are still very traditional in certain respects. In others, we’ve recognised that change is a good thing,” he explains.
“Our cell phone policy is a good example. We still have a cell phone policy but we recognise that younger people, and juniors, have a need to remain in touch with their families, with their children.
“We have gentlemen leaving the club and, rather than drive, they would like to take an Uber. You can’t have them take an Uber unless they can track it on their phones to see where they are.
“We recognise that’s how people communicate. So we have gone from having a zero tolerance policy to having a fairly liberal policy, in as much as cell phones can be used in the locker rooms. You can use them casually for texting.
“There is still no talking on the phone in the public areas but that’s just one example.”
He continues: “We are a vibrant, family oriented club. We want people here. We want our members here with their kids, with their family members and relatives.
“We encourage the club to be used. This is not some object that’s purchased and kept on a shelf. This is a viable living thing. Vibrancy is something we are always concerned with.”
Burns says there has never been a moment in his time at Winged Foot where he wasn’t proud to be affiliated with the club – ‘I’ve worn the logo with a great sense of pride’.
“We truly believe in the ethos of the game of golf. We really do believe that it imparts its participants with a sense of civility and a sense of fair play. We demonstrate that constantly.
“All of our major golf events are all true golf events. Our club championship is a single flight club championship, there are no net events per se.”
“We have the greatest 36 hole facility arguably in the world,” Burns adds. “We don’t need to do anything else – other than provide a high level of service and a really great culinary programme. It’s not just: tie up your shoes in the parking lot, go golf, and leave.
“It’s invite your friends and guests, be welcomed into the grill room. It’s a very welcoming environment.”
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