On the latest episode of the Stick and Hack Show, Mike and Adam are joined by the General Manager of the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. Listen here to learn about what it takes to run the club, and the importance of the culinary culture at the club.

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

Stick & Hack: Colin, when you started your job at Winged Foot, what did they tell you about the mystique of the golf club that you are now in charge of?

Colin Burns: I think the first thing that I learned, it was July of 1991, I was taking some professional development courses up in Cornell and I was asked to come down and interview. I was sitting there, having dinner- I remember the table, I remember who was at the table- and I mistakenly used the term “Winged Foot Country Club,” and that was literally the last time I ever used the term “country club” in reference to Winged Foot. I was stopped immediately by my dear friend Bill Gardella, and he said, “young man, this is a golf club, not a country club. We don’t do any of that country club stuff here.” So that set the tone, not just in terms of the formality of the club at the time, but also the fact that this was not a country club, that this was a place of golf to be respected. I’m not sure if that was a mistake, but that was certainly the tone that was set from the beginning and I’ve never lost that. 

Stick & Hack: Like the old clubs, much like the heritage and history of some old universities, you’ve had to adjust with the times. What are some of the things that you guys have done over the past 30-40 years that bring more inclusion for your members, and for those that want to be experiencing a part of Winged Foot? 

Colin Burns: I think that we have had to adjust clearly; I think some of it is dress code, some of it is as obvious as cell phones. It’s one of the most wonderful memberships you’ll ever meet- it’s diverse, it’s inclusive, it’s fun. We always refer to it as “one of the greatest pubs with 36 holes” because it really is. It’s age diverse… it’s diverse in every imaginable way, so that’s a big change from when I first got there. 

We sort of watch what other clubs have done with cell phone policies and pick and choose, see what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well. Dress code is interesting, because here we have an exceptional junior program. And you know, you can’t ask kids to enjoy the sport and not be “cool.” You can’t have the young ladies dressing like they’re going to St. Mary’s Parochial School, with the skirts down to their knees; you can’t have the guys not enjoy the fact that they’re young boys, that they’ve worked out because the physicality of the game is so much different than it used to be when you saw the old guys with the with the big bellies, a little bit like myself. We have an obligation, not just to keep the club robust, but also to grow the game; and again you can’t ask these juniors to participate if they don’t feel comfortable. 

Stick & Hack: Food is a major part of the experience of any club, but specifically at Winged Foot. Why is the culinary experience so important to your members, and to the success of a Winged Foot? 

Colin Burns: About 12 or 13 years ago, we made a very conscious decision that we no longer wanted to serve club food. If you’re my generation, clubs had notoriously bad food and they had notoriously bad service. It didn’t matter because the members were going there anyway, and the whole culinary thing hadn’t taken off yet; there wasn’t Food Network, there wasn’t all this emphasis and so we went out and hired a New York Times reviewed chef. I’ll never forget the conversation, because prior to that we were very controlling about everything and I said to Billy (O’Keefe), “what should we do?” And he said, “just let him do his job. He’s a recognized chef, let him have some fun, let him do his job.” 

And that’s what we did, and that began this renaissance of the food program at Winged Foot. I’m happy to say last time we did a major survey (with the McMahon Group), they said we have the “greatest food in all of ‘clubdom.’” That’s based upon the thousands of clubs that he surveys. We’re very proud that we have now become everyone’s favorite place to dine .

Stick & Hack: Your career has spanned over 30 years at this point, what three lessons have you learned along the way that you would pass on to younger GM’s that are just getting into the business?

Colin Burns: I think the first would be to take your time. Clubs are generally not in a rush unless there’s something dramatically, systematically wrong- so take your time, be thoughtful about the process of change. I learned that lesson, this isn’t something that I knew when I started. I think the other thing is that, even though we’re in the hospitality business, there’s a discipline involved. This isn’t just throwing a nice tie and a white shirt on, show up and you’ve done your job. You have to have a purpose, you have to be willing to, not just put the time in, but put the time in efficiently and have a plan, stick to that plan. 

I’d say the last thing, I know this sounds very cliche, but you have to have fun. In the hospitality business, whether it involves golf or country club stuff, you have to have fun. I don’t mean yucking it up all the time, which isn’t a bad thing to do but there’s a time and place for that, you have to leave your ego at the door- this is not about you, it’s about the membership. It’s okay to be wrong, make the effort, be self-deprecating. If something doesn’t go well, don’t beat yourself up over it; learn from the lesson, but have fun.

Key takeaway: When it comes to golf club management, being patient and caring can go a long way.

Listen here to learn more about how Winged Foot pulled off hosting the 2020 U.S. Open during the COVID pandemic, and to learn more about Colin’s insight into “clubdom.”