Long-tenured golf coach looks to impact athletes beyond the green

Burke enters his tenth season as URI golf coach this year. PHOTO CREDIT: gorhody.com

From office jobs to critiquing flop shots, Gregg Burke’s resumé at the University of Rhode Island is a long and decorated one.

Burke has played an impactful role in turning Rhode Island’s golf program into a powerhouse that is consistently in contention. Through recruiting and leadership, Burke’s team has accomplished goals that were assumed to be unreachable.

Before Burke took the helm, Rhode Island had nine All-American Scholars to their name; After this season, they will have 24 in the last 10 years. Consequently, URI has received three Golf Coaches Presidential Academic Awards in the past five years. Before Burke, Rhody had none.

Burke’s contributions to the golf program are highly noticeable, however many seem to forget that Burke served as Deputy Athletic Director and Interim Athletic Director at URI from 2004-2010. Obviously, there were some noticeable differences in the two positions.

“When I was deputy director, both Basketball teams reported to me, so that was an all encompassing job, and when I was interim athletic director, I was concerned every single day [for] about 450 athletes,” Burke said. “I was concerned about the budget for 19 sports, and 100 employees… All that was taken away, and now I’m responsible for six to 10 young men.”

That lesser quantity of responsibility allowed Burke to focus more so on the details of these athletes’ lives, which he says has played to his favor in building a program.

“I have monstrously more influence on their lives, which I enjoy, and it’s a truly different experience,” Burke commented.

Burke’s transition to the golf course was not a steady transition, as he was asked by current Athletic Director Thorr Bjorn to take the reins.

“Golf had reported to me when I was Deputy Director of Athletics, and Coach Drennan was retiring,” Burke said. “As I was doing a search for an assistant coach, Thorr decided that he wanted me to be the coach.”

Burke then continued to be the Deputy Director of Athletics as well as handle the duties of the golf coach. However, he was not yet full time. 

“Thorr offered me the job a couple of times before I accepted it, because I knew we could do better,” Burke said. “Then [Thorr] asked me to find someone who could fundraise, and knew the rules, could motivate and care about the kids’ futures… more than I could. I looked at him and said ‘Well no one can do all that other stuff’, so that’s why I took [the job].”

Burke then took the job on a three-year trial run before being offered the first full time head golf coach position at the University of Rhode Island.

Burke has taken this position in stride, and has recruited huge names to play golf at the University of Rhode Island. Three of the biggest names being, Nick Fairwether, who was a New England Interscholastic Champion, Billy Walthouse, who was the first back-to-back Western Massachusetts High School Champion and Joe Leavitt, who topped his New Hampshire State Amateur Championship with a US amateur qualifier.

Burke believes his profound skill in recruiting comes from a great pitch, and leaving his cards all out on the table.

“Selling the University of Rhode Island, its campus, where the boys live, it’s Point Judith!… it’s a very easy sell to young men,” Burke said. 

Burke, however, also believes that the families of the golfers appreciate what he has in store for the golfers as a whole.

“I believe deeply, that I am trying to help these young players be great men of society, business and family relationships… and discipline,” Burke said. “I believe in discipline for discipline’s sake and I’m not easy, but people believe in that and come for that. I tell every young man and his family this, ‘I don’t recruit, I give information.’”

Burke went further to summarize his very complex job of recruiting and made it sound very simple, dividing it into two parts.

 “[Part] one is that I promise the young man and his parents that I will do everything in my power to maximize the young man’s potential as a player, as a person,” Burke said. “The second part of my job is to continue the good work his mom and dad did, and shepherd him from boyhood to manhood, and that takes a lot of discipline that I meet out unabashedly… If we work hard in the weight room, and we work hard in practice, we will be a better golf team and they’ll be better young men for it.”

One player who could testify to Burke’s communication with recruits is fifth-year Brandon Gillis, who is the team’s top performing golfer. Gillis transferred from Wake Forest after the first semester of the 2018-2019 academic year.

“I made it a point during my visit to come alone because when I was transferring I kind of wanted to do everything alone instead of having my parents involved… But he really has a big focus on making you more than just a golfer by the time you leave URI,” Gillis said. “He really tries to develop you as a person and he does a great job with the guys that end up staying all four years. He took me under his wing and I’m really grateful that he did.”

Even with discipline and recruiting, change comes from success. Sports today, especially at the collegiate level are driven by results more now than ever, and if you aren’t winning, you aren’t doing your job. Burke however, has the results to back up his word.

“We’ve played seven tournaments and only 13 teams have beat us… that’s shocking!” Burke said. 

Burke also sees this to be a continued trend of success, with high hopes for the golfers currently climbing the ranks.

“Next year’s class is either my best or second best class I’ve ever recruited,” Burke said. “Of the four kids coming next year, the number four kid just won a major Northeastern Junior Championship [on Mar. 26].”

With a bright future ahead of the Rhode Island Golf program, it is extremely interesting to see where this program can go under the control of Gregg Burke.