“Jack-of-all-trades” “Master of None,” is a thing we’ve all grown up with when you’re looking into careers. But, for the role that we’re going to discuss today, it is the exact opposite. We’re talking about understanding tournament management from junior to the highest of elite levels. We’re talking about being media savvy, so print television radio and then in person having that same personality to carry it all off, and a finger on the pulse of all things golf, from architecture to operations. What role do you think we’re talking about?

Did you guess General Manager? Colin Burns is the General Manager of Winged Foot, a prestigious golf club in New York, who chatted with Alyson and Adam about club and event management.

The following excerpt has been edited for space. Check out the full interview here.


Alyson Johnson: One of the things that we’ve talked about is that, in your role, you really need to have a broad and deep understanding of a lot of different topics. But not only that, you really have to be everything to everyone. How do you manage that on the day-to-day? I would imagine that’s pretty tough.

Colin Burns: It is tough. It’s funny, the first thing I think of is how it translates into my personal life. My wife is always asking “why don’t you talk to the neighbors?” She really does get it now that by the time you go home, you’re really burnt out, you’re tired because you have really, genuinely, in your heart, wanted to be all things to all people. You’ve wanted to listen to the superintendent talking about a particular issue, whether it’s a labor issue or whether it’s an agronomic issue. You really have wanted to listen to the head Pro vent a little bit, because that’s part of what I do. Part of it is a sort of “father confessor” role. 

You take it all very seriously and very much to heart, so that enables you to stay up. It enables you to stay engaged because you really do care, I really do care about the neighbors. And we’re very much good neighbors and very supportive of the community- very much in love with the membership here as I have been for all these years. So the same thing that keeps you engaged and into what you’re doing, is the same thing that at the end of the day, is pretty much what runs the tank empty- because you haven’t been faking it. So Alyson, to answer your question, I think it’s a genuine concern, it’s a genuine caring for others that keeps you engaged, and it helps you.

Adam Grubb: Colin you’re at Winged Foot- and I don’t want that to just kind of gloss over the listeners- that’s a prestigious, amazing club, and it is world-renowned, well-known, well-respected. Do you see yourself in the golf business or in the service business?

Colin Burns: I would say the hospitality business, because I think my mission is to provide the membership with a hospitable, warm, welcome environment. There’s all the elements to it- there’s the golf course conditioning, there’s the the comportment of the staff, there’s the management- you know the fiduciary responsibilities. But I think of myself in the hospitality business, in a very broad sense. It’s not just golf here. Those people who have been to Winged Foot- who have experienced Winged Foot as a guest, maybe at an outing, maybe as a guest of a member, they’ve come to see us in our best light. We welcome people, we don’t shun. We never treat a guest like a “guest,” we treat guests like members, and we treat members like family. So that all comes from this hospitality background that I come from.

Alyson: One of the things that you have been known for in your tenure there is how you’ve trained your staff. You talk about how your staff is your family, and that really is shown. So I know that you know one of your most recent graduates from Winged Foot has gone on to her own general manager role, and she’s a wonderful human being. Everybody who works under you seems to go on to these great jobs. For people who are growing up in the club industry and in the club space, just talk a little bit about what you look for in someone who’s just starting out.

Colin Burns: That’s a really good question. Something we talk about all the time is when there’s an opportunity to hire. Now, at Winged Foot, we have very little turnover- Lily was here for 10 years before leaving. We pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t have a lot of turnover. Longevity, continuity, is something that I built into the board psyche. When I first came here, I said, “you know it’s much cheaper to pay someone more and to keep them with us than to continually have people turn over.” I think one of the things you’re looking for is, not the person who’s necessarily the most technically proficient, but somebody who, in particular, if they love the game of golf. Whether it’s a CFO, whether it’s an executive chef… so that’s part of who we’re looking for when engaging with someone here. 

The chef will be walking somebody around, or Ileana who has now taken over for Lily, or another one of my wonderful, superstar employees who I just adore- I’ll engage with the person who they’re walking with and just not as part of the interview, just because I want to know something about them. I’ll ask them, “what do you know about Winged Foot? Have you been here, have you golfed here?” And if the answer is no, you’re sort of like, “let’s move on,” but they could be a young culinarian from the culinary institute, and they go, “oh my God, my entire life I watched the U.S. Open,” so all of a sudden, they have that connection to us. We want that connection and it’s that personality we look for. We really pride ourselves on welcoming people in a very genuine way and what we look for, especially when it comes to the clubhouse staff. 

Adam: There’s the adage that golf is stuffy, that country clubs, golf clubs, whatever the case may be, they have a certain gravitas and country club feeling. You guys have spent a lot of time trying to make sure that your place doesn’t feel that way. People feel welcomed, they feel exclusive but yet inclusive- it’s a very tight rope that you have to go through to make people feel that way. How do you do that?

Colin Burns: One of the ways we do that is by constantly reminding ourselves that no matter who’s on the property, whether it’s a contractor, a vendor, an employee, a guest, a member… all those people that I just mentioned are, in some way, representative of Winged Foot. They are promoters of our brand. I’ll give you an example. We did a blood drive in the dining room. At the end of this, the people were leaving and I said to one of the employees- who will remain nameless- “did you offer them lunch? The people, the volunteers from the Red Cross?” They said no. I pulled him off to the side- he’s new and I gave him one of my stern looks- and I said, “I don’t care who it is- especially somebody who’s volunteering their time doing something that’s a social good- we offer them something to eat and something to drink. That’s who we are.” Now, why is that important? It’s important to me personally because of the effort they’re making, but it’s also very important for me that these people from the American Red Cross left Winged Foot and said to their friends, relatives, whoever, “what a nice group of people.” 

Alyson: Since you’ve been at Winged Foot, you’ve hosted the Four Ball Championship, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Amateur, and have been two-time host of the U.S. Open. Talk a little bit about how your role shifts when “the circus comes to town,” as we like to say.

Colin: Well you know, I think that’s part of it. I think what has kept me so engaged over the last almost 30 years is the fact that when the “circus does come into town,” when the major event does appear on the horizon, my job shifts completely. I’ve spent probably 20 of the last 30 years working very hard on the relationship with the USGA. That changes the day-to-day focus. The hard thing is that we have to maintain a club. It’s not like you stop what you’re doing, host the U.S. Open, and then we’ll get back to you later. So, we’re maintaining the membership experience the whole time. Communications are very intensive because we have a couple of private Instagram accounts, we have a text messaging system that we put in place- communications is key. 

I then have these two sort of big balls up in the air; one is the U.S. Open, one is the membership, and you can’t drop either one. What we do is we get certain members of the staff focused and it doesn’t always appeal to them, but not everybody can have their hands in the U.S. Open or PGA championship pot, they just can’t. With certain people, unfortunately you say, “look when we get real close, you’ll be involved, but in the meantime we need you to focus on still doing admissions.” We’re still doing membership things. We’re still sending out bills, we still have food and beverage activity, we’re still maintaining- so all those things have to continue happening. In my case, I shift a little bit away, and fortunately, have somebody like Lily who gets more responsibility from the sort of membership experience perspective, and I then turn my focus a little bit more on whatever the event is.

Watch the full interview here to learn more about Colin’s extensive experience running Winged Foot, as well as some other priceless stories he shared with us.

Key Takeaway: Genuinely caring for your staff and clientele can lead to monumental growth and success.