Colin Burns Life Is Not A Straight Line

by Ari Schonbrun

Interview with Colin Burns: Life Is Not A Straight Line


Colin Burns has an inspiring story to tell, a story that is sometimes funny and often heartwarming. This is a story that will cause listeners to begin thinking and reflecting on their own lives. Colin has served as general manager of the famed Winged Foot Golf Club since 1991. He is the longest-serving GM in Winged Foot history. His list of accomplishments and the success Winged Foot has enjoyed under his leadership is astounding.

Episode Transcription:

{Intro Plays}

Ari: My name is Ari Schonbrun and I am your host today. I’m really, really excited for today’s episode. I’ve got an incredible, incredible individual Colin Burns, who’s the general manager of Wingfoot golf course. I met Collin probably in the late 2000s. I was working at Cantor Fitzgerald at the time, and we were doing a golf outing. And one of the courses that we picked was wing foot. And that’s when I met Collin and like instantaneously, we became very, very good friends. It was just he’s just that type of guy that when you meet Colin and all of a sudden he’s your friend. He’s a great, great guy. He’s also very, very accomplished. Let me give you a little bit of bio about Collin arrived at the as the General Manager of plans on Country Club and it has long island in July of 1987. 

At a young age of 28 Calm was running a very active classic neighborhood Country Club calm developed a very strong following right away the membership appreciate his hard work and dedication to excellence. In a very short four and a half year period, he turned Plandome Country Club into a highly efficient well run operation. The food quality was exceptional service top-notch, and the member experience was everything that they wanted it to be. In 1991, Collin joined the storied Wingfoot golf club as the General Manager. He is now the longest serving General Manager in the history of the club. His longevity speaks volumes for his commitment to a club he reveres as well as his keen management style and an unpalatable bility. To guide and nurture a staff of over 150 employees in 1997. 

Only six years you have to comment on the job Wingfoot hosted its first ever PGA Championship column was assigning the added responsibility of director of operations for the PGA Championship. And during this period, Collin work with the PGA of America and the Executive Committee of the club to ensure a successful PGA Championship. The success of the 1997 PGA Championship led to the club hosting the 2004 US amateur, the 2006 US Open the 2016 US Amateur Football Championship, and most recently, the 2020 US Open. Cuollin is a proud volunteer for the Gladney center for adoption where he is a national advisor. In this role, he assists in the organization of National Golf events and fundraisers. The Gladney center is responsible for over 32,000 adoptions since its inception in the late 1800s. In 2013, column was honored to be the recipient of the Gladney Center Friend of adoption award. In 2019. Cullen hosted another remarkable Gladney cup. Khan is a trustee at the Metropolitan Club Foundation, which which is established to promote education in the field of club management and hospitality. In 2014, Collin was inducted into the MC ma Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the 25 year club, as presented to him at the CMA national conference in 2018. In 2023, the club will be celebrating its centennial, college and his team have already begun making plans to commemorate this important marker in Wingfoot history. Maybe he’ll share some of those plans with us today. Let me introduce to you my friend, General Manager of Wingfoot. 

Colin welcome, how are you today?

Colin: I am exhausted after that intro, I don’t think I’ve accomplished that much. very humbled to be here with you. I’m honored. It’s always great to see an old friend. And so I’m really happy to see you Ari.

Ari: Thank you so much. Well, I gotta tell you, after reading that resume, I went like, Wow, congratulations. That’s unbelievable. So let me ask you something. Okay. I know that you’re the general manager of Wingfoot. But are you a golfer?

Colin: You know, it’s funny you ask. I’m actually going skiing this weekend, not just because of the weather. Because here in the northeast, it’s cold, a little bit snowy. It remains one of my passions. I do golf, I don’t golf as often as I used to the combination of children, family. And sometimes it just you want to get away being surrounded by two of the world’s most famous golf courses, Wingfoot West and Wingfoot east. It’s very tempting, but often Ari at the end of the day. You just want to go home,

Ari: I hear you. Let me ask you one other question Who’s the most famous person that you’ve ever golf with?

Colin: Oh my gosh. Well, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of people over the years. I was thinking about it yesterday, I was watching one of the silly Damon Wayne  Brothers films and I had the pleasure of playing golf with Damon years ago, I played golf with Jack Nicholson. I’ve had the pleasure of paddling around on the golf course with Michael Jordan. I’ve golfed with the prince of Morocco. Rasheed played with Jane Pauley who I’m so happy to see she’s made such a great comeback. And I’m sure there’s a few more in there. I mean, I’ve paled around with Mr. Nicholas been on the golf course with Arnold Palmer. I haven’t actually played with them, but I’ve spent time with them on the course. So it’s been, it’s been a nice run in terms of meeting really interesting, famous people.

Ari: Wow, it’s just amazing. That is just wow, let’s get down to, you know, to tactics here, okay. Now, as you know, the name of the podcast is whispers and bricks, and the whispers are those voices telling you what is the right thing to do, and represents the good in life. The bricks represent the bad things that we go through in life. Now, on the surface, I read your bio, you seem to have like a great life, a great career. Alright, but we all know that life is not a straight line. There are many ups and downs and many bumps in the road. What my listeners would like to know is what was some of the your struggles and your failures, even some of your bricks that you got hit with, when you were starting out in your career, and throughout your career

Colin:  Ari it’s a really good sort of place to begin, because I don’t believe that anyone goes through life without a few bricks, some of them start early on, some of them come later in life. And I was reflecting on on the on your title and knowing through the theme of your show, when I think about the bricks in my life, I think the earliest one came when I was actually a freshman in high school, which I know is taking us back a long way. But it remains significant to me. My I had two cousins and their child were all killed the same day. In a car accident, I still wear, I still have Dave’s ring on he was my sponsored confirmation. And you know, in the Christian tradition, it’s a very important position for somebody to hold, you hold them in great esteem, you ask them to stand behind you at confirmation, and to sort of get you on the road of hopefully a you know, a sound spiritual life. And they were both 28 years of age, the baby was three years old. 

And to this day, I think about them a lot. And I think about how it formed the sort of the context of my life and being very sensitive at a very young age to the fleeting nature of life. You know, I think some children, young men and women get to go through life maybe up until their 20s 30s, even 40s not really thinking about life, and it’s how frail it is, and how fleeting it is. And that moment today still sticks with me. So that was an event that really has shaped my life, my thinking in terms of context, and what’s important and what’s not important and never taking the things that aren’t too serious, very serious. And so that was sort of the beginning by thought a little bit further. And then I thought about my college days with which we’re not terribly successful, to be frank with you. It’s not something that I’ve spoken openly about very seldom. But I had the misfortune of following a very smart, older brother, I have four brothers, we went to the same university at one point and they thought there was something wrong with me have following him, are you doing drugs were you dropped on your head, studying or you’re not sleeping, and I just didn’t have what he had an a struggle. 

Not that I struggled academically. I struggled just emotionally with being in school and I found myself involved with probably the wrong people. And I just sort of I was lost. And so I remember very vividly a buddy of mine said, why don’t we go to your let’s just sort of fee just graduated and it was the summer of 1982. And I’ll never forget we took one of those very cheap standby flights on Iceland air, which flew you through Reykjavik, Iceland, in Cork city, and I think it was $90 each way. And you sat at Newark Airport, they called your number after a couple of days you hopped on the flight. That was I guess it was a combination of bricks and whispers because something was whispering in my ear. Someone was telling me it was time for change. And I knew I couldn’t change where I was and sort of who I was with. So I literally up and left and half a year later, I returned home and it really changed my life. You know, it’s funny you mentioned you mentioned coming to Wingfoot after being planned on and planned on was a lot of fun. I loved all the guys and men and women I met at in the Manhasset area, some of them whose names you probably knew was a result of working at Cantor Coghlan family you’re in so I knew them very well. And we will circle back to that I’m sure later, but I’ll never forget. I just gotten to wait for this general manager, the youngest ever I was hired at a real and I was a long shot. Nobody knew who I was. People in the industry were competing for the position. And I got the position. And I would say maybe a month into the job the person who was responsible sort of my rabbi, if you will person who I knew at the club who was helping me came to my house and say I need to speak to you. I said let’s go any snow. I need to speak to you and your wife. I thought Geez, what’s this about? And he said, You’re not gonna make it. This is not working out. I said, well, that’s kind of unfortunate because I just sold my home and left a job at Plandome which I love dearly. He said it’s just not working out. You’re just not handling things the way we had expected. And it made me sit down and think about how I was conducting myself. I guess I was a little bit too young, a little too aggressive. Not particularly sensitive to the older staff members, some of the traditions culture.

Ari: This was a month after you got the job. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Okay, sorry.

Colin: No, no, not at all. So I was rather shocked. I sat there, I think I may have cried a little bit and said, you know, what am I done? I didn’t, you know, I was just trying to do my job. But I was doing my job without thinking about those around me, I was doing my job with with a care only for efficiency and results. And not being sensitive to those people who’ve been there for a long time I sat gathered, my thoughts, committed to change. And I did, and here I am, it’ll be 30 years, October 1. So that was a real wake up moment for me. I mean, it just, it shook me to the point where I said, I can’t believe that I could have gotten this job worked so hard within before the end of the year. So that was October of 1991, it looked like I was gonna lose my job before the end of the year. I think your self reflection is so important. Rather than just ignore it and say, you know, they don’t know what they’re doing. And I know what I’m doing. And I’m the professional. And don’t tell me how to do my job. Instead, I said, you know, what? The right, the right. And so I reflected on that and made some immediate changes. And so here I am.

Ari: Wow, yeah. Wow, that is so amazing, you know that you had the wherewithal at that young age, to understand what was going on. And to take the criticism, any people don’t know how to take criticism, then again, a lot of people give criticism, don’t know how to give criticism either. Alright. But that’s besides the point. But wow. So that was so was really early on when that brick came into you and hit you.

Colin: So I think about it. It’s funny, I was thinking about joining you today for this conversation. So I went from sort of brick to brick to brick and like you, I couldn’t help but stop and think about September 11, for this past year was opened in 2020. I’m not sure if you realize, but we actually because it was so close to the beginning of the US Open, we held our annual memorial service. And we had a tremendous turnout, we had five drums, we had one of our club priests, we had everyone on property from the USGA, all vendors, all employees, and we held our moment of silence. And I guess it’s 847 is when we reflect on that time. And it was that time in you know, much better than I, how impactful it was for our lives. And I thought about our friends, you know, Billy minority and Tommy Galvin, who were at Cantor, Michael Berkeley, were at Cantor, I think, and Justin McCarthy, who was there as well in the building, and I thought about all of them, in particular, that day in hell, what a moment that was for all of us. And I know what brings you back to a time in your life.

Ari: Yeah, it does. But this is not about me. Okay. This is not about me, this is about my guests. My audience has heard all about me, they know all about me. And the idea was to bring in guests that have gone through that are either on the top of the world and but had a interesting way of getting there as you did. But let me ask you this. Alright. Did you ever fall to a point so low that you said to yourself, I quit. I’m done. I’m out. Oh, yeah. And if you did, all right, well, how did you deal with it? How’d you make that comeback?

Colin: You know, that’s great. Ari, and I have been there not to get into any details, but not that very long ago. family situation. You know, when you have children, there’s always something happening.

Ari: Oh, tell me about it. How many kids? Do you have i five children? Oh, me too. I did not know that.

Colin: I know that. Yeah. There was a moment, you know, a couple years ago when things had really gone south. And I needed to really figure out what I was doing what we were doing as a family. It was a very, very, very low point in my life in our collective life as a family. And I remember the first thing I did, and this is not to sort of to proselytize. But the first thing I did was go to see father less at St. Paul, which is right down the street. And I guess being that Catholic school boy in spending time with him and with the family members really helped to get me centered again. And I was about to give up at that point. I mean, I was about as low as I ever been in my adult life, for sure. And I said, No, I’m not going to give into defeat, I’m not going to give into the circumstances. And we are now in a place that’s so remarkably good. It’s scary how good things are. And I’m grateful and I reflect on it every day. Because I think it’s those moments you cannot forget about the way I referenced something earlier that I was going to share with you and I’m not sure if it’s a poem, but it’s a statement by Escalus, the Greek tragic writer and a both John McCain and Joe Biden were both very fond of this particular quote, and it begins with he who learns must suffer And I think that’s how we truly learn right is through having that brick come through the window or through your head, and stopping and thinking and reflecting and learning. And you learn, unfortunately, a lot through suffering. And so that was probably the biggest break in my life, at least in recent years and grateful for where I am now. But it would have been very easy just to say, You know what, I’m done. Let’s just quit work. Let’s move. Let’s sort of give up and we, as a family refuse to give up.

Ari: Do you believe I’m sure you do. But I’ll ask the question. Where do you believe that God played a big part in your comeback there? Your belief in God, 

Colin:  Completely 100%? And again, I don’t want to sound like I’m proselytizing

Ari: No, no, no, not at all. Not at all.

Colin: But But I believe that this is about spirituality, not a particular religion, whether it’s yours or mine or anyone else’s, I genuinely believe that, that there is a need a place for God. And I find myself when I am truly down and out and feeling a little bit lost. You know, that’s where I turn

Ari:  Yeah,I hear you. Now, let me ask you this, who is the one person in your life that you can point to? Who had like the most influence on you in your life? And why?

Colin: Boy, that’s a really, really good question. Oh, boy, you know, it’s funny, and this is sort of an interesting answer. And it’s kind of obvious. You say, Oh, your father. Well, the reason I’m gonna say my father is because we work together. We were just father and son. He owned a restaurant, very thriving place, which is still there, right down the street from Montclair State College, which is now Montclair State University. Bruce Willis was our most famous former employee, we worked together for years when he was, you know, an aspiring actor at Montclair State. And so I got to see my father, I think a lot different than most young men get to see their fathers wasn’t just I saw him at dinner, there was some kind exchanges and then you know, off the bed, I worked with him literally every day, we started at a very young age, we were working 1213 And it was Christmas morning, Com’n we gotta go. Eastern morning Com’n we gotta go. Mother’s Day. com’n We gotta go. 

Ari: Dad give me a break

Colin: So I got to see a man who was truly dedicated to his profession, who loved what he did, who worked very hard, who was very elegant in his behavior, Mr. Burns to everyone. Remember, Bruce would say to him, he was the only one who used to call him Mr. B. And Bruce would say Hollywood, Mr. B, you know, we would all flinched. My father was not was not the most approachable guy. But you know what I also think, what I saw in my father, because we work so closely, and sometimes it was till three in the morning, and people were drinking and carrying on, I also saw the other sides of him. I also saw the effects of alcohol, frankly. And so how difficult it was at times for him to deal with that watched perhaps some of his friend and not so gracious light. So but all of that mixed together, I still to this day, look at him and go, Oh, God, how did he do it? How did he raise five boys in this very wealthy, but we were well off, we were well educated. And you know, we belong to clubs, and we did all those things. And I think How did he do it? So I always tip my hat to Harry, who signed everything. I still have things around my office, and everything was signed your host Harry birds. And we still find things we just found. This is crazy, that we’re talking about this. So he loved handing things out. Imagine this is from the 60s it’s a little lighter.

Ari: Yeah. It’s like a Zippo lighter.

Colin: On the back of the head burns country in on it your host Harry burns. Wow. So we still find things on the internet. It’s a lot of fun, very proud man, very proud of what he had done with his life. So he’s one of the guys who I really look towards restraint and some sort of internal energy when I need it. 

Ari: Is he still alive?

Colin: It’s funny. I was thinking about it today. It’ll be eight years this March. And much, much, much too young. He had skin cancer, they miss up. My mother, thankfully, still life. But I remember it’s funny, you know, sort of the intersection of life and golf. And I remember our last round of golf, which was he didn’t do a lot together as children because he just basically worked. The restaurant ran seven days a week for 40 years. And I said to him, Dad I knew was his last round. And I said, What do you want to go? They said, I’ll take you anywhere. So let’s go to Spring Lake. He said, Spring Lake not Pine valley, not Augusta National. Not some world famous. Not even Wingfoot by the way. 

Ari: Yeah (laughing)

Colin: I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t insulted. Yeah. But it was a place where he had developed lots of really great memories and our host. It’s funny how small the world is pulling Yone who we had never met the club set us up with them. Well, within two or three holes of golf. It turned out that Perry and Paul had 40 or 50 mutual friends, and we’re off to the races and we played 15 holes and gotten  in the cart and said You know I am a little tired. And that was it. We never golfed again. 

Ari: Wow!

Colin: A very, very special day.

Ari: I was going to say it must have been a special day.

Colin:  It was gorgeous. We had a couple of drinks afterwards and now we never golf together again, but it was beautiful.

Ari: Wow. What do you like to drink? By the way? Just curious.

Colin: You know what’s funny, just wine I try and force myself every once a while to try something else. My father drank enough Scotch for the entire family.

Ari: single malt? I bet

Colin: it was funny. You know, the four boys. I don’t think anyone in I don’t know why my mother by the way. It’s a funny story. My mother never drank the first time she was meeting my wife. She we sat down for dinner. And she said I’m going to have a gin and tonic. And I looked at her and I said Mother gin and tonic. Do you even know what that is? I’m just in the mood. No, I think that was one of two drinks. I’ve seen her having her at nine years.

Ari: Wow. Wow. All right. So before we close down all right, is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience before we go?

Colin: Yeah, I would you don’t funny as I was waiting to come on with you. I have a brand new puppy at home. First Puppy in my life. A madly in love with another woman. Her name is Molly. She’s really cheap dog. I’m cooking for Molly. I’m sleeping with Molly. Oh, my wife’s not listening. But she knows who Molly is. This is how crazy people get with dogs. And it realized, and I’m trying to find something for her to watch because I knew I was going to be busy having the pleasure of talking with you. So what do I turn on, I turn on the remake of karate kid with Jackie Chan. And he’s talking I wanted something entertaining for the puppy. So He’s instructing a young man about heinous code, they can see what’s missing. A little boy threw his coat down, threw his coat down. And Jackie Chan takes it, he puts it on the rack and smiles. He says attitude. That’s what’s missing attitude. So the little boy hung the coat smiled at me said there it is attitude. And I think that if I can leave you and your listeners with anything, it’s attitude, you have to take hold of your attitude. You have to sometimes force yourself to smile, force yourself. Even if you’re not in the mood, go look at that sunset. And all of a sudden you find yourself in a different place. And I think it’s critically important that we recognize that we don’t have to be victims of our attitude. But we can control our attitude, we can force ourselves to smile, and that in and of itself makes us feel better.

Ari: Wow, such great advice. Really, really great advice. So people that are watching this and listening to you speak and everything else, if they wanted to get in touch with you. Is that a possibility? And if so, what would be the best way for them to do that? Is it through one of your charities? Maybe? Or is it through the golf course? Or is it? What would be the best way to get a hold of you?

Colin: Well, the best way Actually, I’m very active on LinkedIn. So anyone who’d like to find me on LinkedIn,

I’m there and they can send me a message and send them my email address. That probably be the best way. I mean, look, when for golf club, all you got to do is Google it and dial the main number. They know who I am. But I think just for generally speaking, LinkedIn is a great resource.

Ari: Great, great. Okay, Collin, thanks so much for sharing your story with my audience. It was certainly for me, it was very, very moving. Very inspirational. I want to wish you a lot of luck going forward. I know you’ve got big plans for 2023 for the golf club. I’m excited about it. Because you know, I can’t wait to see it again. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the course I’ve seen the changes in the course. Over the years. You’ve been a great general manager. Everybody loves you. I know that I love you as a friend. And I’m very, very happy that you decided to join us. You’ve been listening to whispers and bricks. I’m your host  Ari Schonbrun Until next time, listen to the whispers and never give up on your dreams. Bye for now.

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