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June 8, 2023

Longtime professional Chris Burns dies at 86

By Gregg Dewalt, Alabama Golf News Editor
Chris Burns, long-time Florence golf professional

Mentor to countless junior players

The day after his death, longtime Florence Country Club professional Chris Burns was being remembered as someone who “truly loved the game” and was passionate about junior golf.

And there were stories – plenty of stories – being told about Burns, who earlier this year was inducted into the Alabama-NW Florida Chapter’s Hall of Fame.

Burns died Wednesday morning at his home in Florence. He was 86. He spent 40 years as the head pro at Florence Country Club, arriving in 1961. With a passion for junior golf, he mentored hundreds of youngsters well past when the club closed and he continued teaching juniors well into his retirement.

One Chris Burns pupil: Stewart Cink

His most celbrated pupil was a young Stewart Cink, who grew up at Florence Country Club and now boasts one major championship and eight total PGA Tour victories.

Cink said it was a “a blessing to have him in my life.”

“He was such a perfect mentor for somebody like me,” Cink said. “He was irreverent to the Nth degree, and he was experienced and knowledgeable and had a fighting mentality and a refusal to accept defeat.”

Cink joked that “Chris was the only boss I have ever had,” referring to his days as a teenager when he worked at Florence Country Club.

“He had a beautiful personality for a lot of kids like me,” Cink said. “I happened to be one of the ones closest to him because of Florence Country Club. He has been the only person I ever worked for in my life. My only boss ever. I don’t know how I lasted as long as I did. If I didn’t know him as well as I did – if I didn’t occasionally have some good golf in me, I would have gotten fired.”

Burns, who began caddying at age 6 in Tryon, North Carolina, arrived at Florence Country Club in 1961 fresh off a stint in the U.S. Air Force where he played on several of that military branch’s teams in Europe. He also helped in the construction of a golf course at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. That experience helped when he designed a second nine holes at FCC, making it the first 18-hole golf course in the Florence/Muscle Shoals area.

He loved teaching

“He loved to be able to show us how to hit shots and tricks and things. The cool thing about it was that he was so excited about showing you how to do things a little different,” Cink said.

He recalled one time in Dothan when Burns was explaining the best way to hit a shot from a plugged lie in a bunker — which Burns said was to take the flagstick out and one-hop the shot into the hole. His students thought he was crazy.

“We got on a par 3 and he hit a ball in the bunker and it plugged. He told us to take the flag out and he one-hopped the dang thing into the hole. It was like super hero stuff – you don’t do that.”

Cink recalls Burns, who wore a trademark bucket hat, as being more than just the head pro at FCC and giving lessons to members. He remembers Burns as a jack-of-all-trades employee at the club.

“I don’t remember him giving a lot of lessons because we didn’t have a range,” he said. “He wasn’t just the instructor; he was the shop manager. He was the only guy who worked out there except for the kids like me and Chad (Parker) and David Morris. He didn’t have time to give a bunch of lessons.”

Instead, Cink remembers Chris Burns for the dedication he had in taking care of the golf course.

“He just cared so much for that golf course and he wanted it to be as nice for the members as possible,” he said. “It wasn’t that it was Augusta National, but it was our golf course and it was what we had and he wanted it to be good. He poured his whole soul into that thing.”

Under his tutelage more than 100 children earned college scholarships. He often noted that getting a golf scholarship was an easy way to pay for college.

Chris Burns leaves ‘this amazing legacy’

Burns amassed numerous awards throughout his years as a PGA of America professional, including the Alabama-Northwest Florida Section Professional of the Year, Senior Professional of the Year and Teacher of the Year. He also was inducted into the Lauderdale County Sports Hall of Fame.

Tom Ross, who worked for Burns and whose family had a membership to Florence Country Club, said Burns will be remembered for his passion for the game. Now a financial advisor, Ross said Burns’ legacy will be celebrated for what he produced not just on the course, but how those people turned out away from it. Ross said the list of Burns’s impact on people goes beyond the golf course.

“I could come up with names all day long,” he said. “Chris leaves behind this amazing legacy that we all would love to aspire to when that day comes for us.”

Another of Burns’ proteges, Chad Parker worked alongside Cink at Florence Country Club and now is the president and general manager at East Lake Golf Club, site of the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship and one of the country’s iconic golf clubs. He said he doesn’t know where he would be in his career without the guidance and the teachings of Burns.

His pro shop was more like a barbershop

“When I found out [about Burns’s death], I went outside and sat under a tree in a golf cart for about 45 minutes and thought about that,” Parker said. “Out of all the good things that have happened for me, most of them can be tied back to golf. What more could you ask of someone in terms of their legacy than to provide something like that.”

Parker said the golf shop at Florence Country Club when he was working there was more like a barbershop where members would just show up and sit around and talk.

“You learned a lot of stuff in there – a lot of words you never heard before and you talked about things you didn’t talk about with your buddies,” he said.

For Parker, the image of Burns behind the counter in the golf shop remains etched in his memory.

“Him sitting on his barstool behind the counter with his right foot propped up against the counter with a golf club in his hand between his thumb and his forefinger, and he probably has a cigar he is chewing on. He’s twirling the club back and forth and he is talking about something – either golf or politics or whatever. He is holding court in that golf shop, behind the counter collecting cart keys, organizing the member game they used to have every day. It was just an unbelievable place to grow up and learn about life, learn golf, learn how to compete.”

Recently, the Chris and Patricia Burns Foundation was established with a mission to sponsor SNAG golf in every school in Lauderdale and Colbert counties, provide two scholarships in their name and support junior and high school golf in the area while providing access to those players.

He also was involved in several charity events. He established the George C. Wilson Memorial tournament that supported the American Heart Association. He also established the Laurie Burns Memorial tournament that supported high school golf in the area.

Burns is survived by his wife Patricia and two grandchildren. Visitation was scheduled for Friday and a memorial service was set for Saturday.

Gregg Dewalt is the editor of Alabama Golf News

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Featured image of Chris Burns (left) in 2013, courtesy of the TimesDaily.

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