A Conversation with the Commissioner

For golfers all across the country, the spring and summer months bring about league play at their local clubs. Thousands of golfers compete daily with friends and co-workers for the time-tested tradition of bragging rights (and sometimes for something with a little more value) and in the Upstate of South Carolina, things are no different. I am lucky enough to hold a fantastic job at Furman University which is a small liberal arts school located in Greenville, South Carolina. Furman has their own university golf course located just off of the main campus and it is one of the most beautiful university golf courses in the entire country.

The Furman Golf Club plays host to a very unique league of university-employed faculty and staff members that begins play every year on the first Tuesday after the clocks roll forward and continues through the blistering heat and humidity that is the South Carolina summer, meeting every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. For our league members, they typically will see one face, one man, who graces the links more often than many of his younger counterparts (perhaps because he gets to enjoy retirement) as he walks behind his push-cart up, down, and across each fairway on the front nine of the course. Many times, Purple and White League Commissioner, John Burns will knock in his final putt on number nine and make his way to the patio of the clubhouse where he has a full view of the ninth fairway and green and wait for his fellow league members to finish their respective rounds. Upon each group’s completion, the patio crowd grows larger and commissioner Burns leads conversations about the day’s opportunities (those that were seized and missed, alike).

I wanted to ask the commissioner of this hallowed league what he enjoys most about the game of golf and to get a little more history about this near half-century-old league. Enjoy…

Ben Mathey (BM): When did you start playing golf?

John Burns (JB): I began playing when I was nine or 10 years old. I would go out with my dad and caddie for him and every so often, he would hand me a club or two and let me take a couple swings. I really got into the game when I was in high school but at the time my school did not have a golf team so I would just play when I could.

BM: What is it about the game of golf that keeps you coming back?

JB: I like the individuality of golf. Every time you’re out there, you are playing against yourself and the course and must count every shot – good or bad. It taught me a lot about integrity and taking responsibility for your own actions at an early age.

BM: What do you think separates golf from other sports?

JB: You are competing alone and have to make your own decisions. There isn’t a coach out there to draw up plays for you. It helps build confidence and teaches you that even if you play your best, you may not come out on top. There are a lot of parallels between the golf course and real life.

BM: When you are on the golf course, how do you approach that particular round? Are there specific things you are trying to accomplish?

JB: When I was younger, my focus was on my score and hitting each shot as perfectly as I could. I was very competitive with myself and with others and I enjoyed the challenge of beating last week’s score or hitting more accurate shots or making putts. Overall, I was much more focused on my game. Today, I play for fun and exercise. I also play more strategically as I try to position myself to make pars as opposed to going after flags. I am much more accepting of the times when I hit poor shots and know that that means I am not necessarily a bad player – it was just a bad swing. Now more than ever, I just enjoy being on the course and experiencing the fellowship with other players.

BM: Is there anything in particular about golf in South Carolina that you prefer to golf in other areas/states?

JB: Not really. I enjoy different courses for the unique challenges they offer. There are great courses all over this country.

BM: Tell me about the Purple and White league. What is it? How long has it been around?

JB: The Purple and White league began about 45 years ago and was originally called Plumbers and Carpenters. At that time, the Furman course was private and was only open to members, faculty, staff and students. Guys in the facilities services shop were looking for a way to gather outside of work and that was how the league was born. It was quite a different league at that time – there were no set tee times and no scoring system as we have today – you just played.

***TODAY, THE PURPLE AND WHITE LEAGUE USES A MODIFIED STABLEFORD SYSTEM. PLAYERS PLAY THREE QUALIFYING ROUNDS TO ESTABLISH A TARGET NUMBER. TARGET NUMBERS ARE DETERMINED BY POINTS – BIRDIES ARE WORTH THREE POINTS, PARS WORTH TWO, AND BOGEYS WORTH ONE. DURING EACH ROUND, PLAYERS ATTEMPT TO REACH THEIR TARGET NUMBER. IF A PLAYER FAILS TO REACH HIS/HER TARGET NUMBER, ONE POINT IS DEDUCTED FROM HIS/HER TEAM SCORE. IF A PLAYER SCORES THEIR TARGET, IT HAS A ZERO VALUE. AND IF A PLAYER EXCEEDS THEIR TARGET NUMBER, THEY EARN ONE POINT FOR THEIR TEAM (EITHER THE PURPLE OR WHITE TEAM)***

This format changed around 1985 or ’86 as more faculty and staff members began to play. This was when the name “Purple and White League” was adopted. In about 1987 or so, we changed from just playing to establishing tee times and a scoring system resembling the one we use today. I was asked to take on a leadership role and became league “commissioner”. Vince Moore became the first purple team captain and James Odom became the first captain for the white team. Owen McFadden scheduled our tee times and we began giving out individual awards at the end of each season. Finally, Randy Dill took over scoring and established the current system used for recording results and changes in league standings each week. Obviously it has evolved quite a bit since those days.

BM: What is the purpose of the Purple and White league?

JB: The league’s purpose then and now is to provide faculty/staff with a way to interact with each other. It was one of the early ways to meet people you might never otherwise meet and foster good relations between departments on campus. The emphasis has always been on enjoying yourself and interaction with other members of the Furman family.

BM: What do you enjoy most about the league?

JB: The chance to play golf with others who love the game. I’ve always loved the time spent with colleagues.

BM: If you could make one change to the league, what would it be?

JB: We used to play the front nine on Tuesdays and the back nine on Thursdays. I would love to get back to that format.

BM: Do you have any other thoughts about the league?

JB: Purple & White has been and continues to be the single best way for people of all departments to interact in a fun and relaxing environment. The time spent each Tuesday and Thursday means a lot to how well departments get along. It promotes friendships and conversations and enhances the total university community. Where else could this diverse group ever be together?

Closing Thoughts:

I believe there is hidden value in John’s words that were not explicitly mentioned in our conversation. Sure, fostering good will between campus constituents is important, but that is a byproduct of what this game does. The game of golf serves Furman (and the world) in a much greater sense. John mentioned the diversity of the players in the league and that CANNOT be understated. Golf serves as a unifying force for people who are looking for a momentary escape from what’s going on in their everyday lives. It’s nine (or 18) individual battles that require your undivided attention and if you are not fully present on the golf course, your results will show it.

I would like to thank John for taking the time to answer my questions and I look forward to continuing to share my thoughts on this incredible game. Until next time…good hunting!

-Ben

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4 thoughts on “A Conversation with the Commissioner

  1. When my mother passed in 2016, I was lost. She was my rock. When I needed advice, a hug, support, she was there. As I was driving one Saturday, it was as if the golf course was calling me. I stopped, pulled out my bag and instead of renting a cart, I decided to walk the back nine. That day, it wasn’t about strategy or competition. When I approached the first tee and looked out at the fairway, a dogleg right that I always miss to the left, it was as if my mom was there giving me direction and guidance. As I teed off, the ball was going straight and all of a sudden, a gust of wind blew from the left and the ball slowly went around to the right and out of sight. As I slowly walked up to take my second shot, I found the ball had landed dead center of the fairway, a perfect setup for my second shot to the green. All I could do was fall to my knees. Tears began to fall. I felt my mom and could hear her saying you are heading in the right direction, stay on the fairway and stay centered and your life will always line up. Golf is so much more and when you are out there all by yourself, know that you are never alone.

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