Here we grow: Carlos Arraya and the PGA Championship at Bellerive

Bellerive Country Club’s Carlos Arraya, CGCS, has encountered triumph, tragedy and personal growth on his journey to the 2018 PGA Championship.


Carlos Arraya
Nineteen-year GCSAA member Carlos Arraya, CGCS, has been at the reins at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis — host of the 2018 PGA Championship — since early 2016. Photos by David Torrence

His introduction to this industry shed no light on what was ahead for Carlos Arraya, CGCS. After all, it’s hard to know what’s in front of you when you have issues seeing where you’re going.

Arraya launched his career in 1996 at MetroWest Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. “I had to get up at 4:15 in the morning to drive there. My first day was on a Saturday, and there were seven people in the break room. No one said hello,” Arraya says. “I was taken out to the first hole on a Sand Pro, given no training, and there was a heavy fog. I couldn’t see because there was no headlamp on the unit.”

A co-worker offered advice on how to operate the Sand Pro and informed Arraya that they had more than 90 bunkers to rake. “The only way I could find her was by following the dew tracks,” he says. By day’s end, Arraya was intrigued but not convinced. “I remember smelling fresh-cut grass, my shoes being wet. That was cool,” he says. “I also remember saying that I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for this job.”

Let’s cut to the chase: Arraya — who was born in Puerto Rico and came to the mainland U.S. as a toddler — has proved he belongs. When you earn the title of director of grounds and agronomy and have the chance to oversee the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, which takes place Aug. 9-12, it’s a strong signal that you’ve arrived. It was by no means easy or painless.

Arraya was a teenager facing grown-up decisions. He wanted to leave Orange City, Fla., and be an engineer or a chief operating officer. All of those hopes and dreams were shelved, however, when life intervened. “I was dating a girl. She got pregnant. I learned when I was 18 that I was going to be a dad,” Arraya says. He decided to remain in Florida and took a job making $4.75 per hour stripping and waxing floors. “I told myself that I did not want to not be in my son’s life,” he says.

His decision meant finding a job that would pay more and that promised other perks. The 75-cent increase in pay he received by leaving a job waxing floors to work at MetroWest eventually proved to be worth every penny. A child of divorce at a young age, Arraya arranged to spend time with his family. “I was used to working the night shift, but by taking the job at MetroWest, I went in early and was able to see my son at night,” Arraya says. “That was important to me, to have some sort of balance. I wanted to make sure he had a better life than I did when I was young.”

Arraya has implemented his beliefs at home and at work. He is determined to grow as a person for his family and grow a team at Bellerive. For Arraya, growing people is at least as important as growing grass.

“It (PGA Championship) has political significance in golf globally and in the industry. But, compared to life, it has less meaning,” Arraya says. “I have an obligation to my club and staff to be better for people, not better for something or a championship.”

A work in progress

With $400 in his pocket and a wife and baby Isaih at home, Arraya recalls going to purchase a car. The experience drove him to greater heights in his profession.

“When I went to buy a car, I didn’t have credit. I still remember that feeling of rejection,” Arraya says. “My now-ex-wife’s family helped to get us going. I thought, ‘That will never happen again.’”

Arraya, a 19-year GCSAA member, was promoted by the end of his first year at MetroWest while on the side earning an associate degree in computer electronic engineering. He was offered a job as an engineer when Universal’s Island of Adventure was being built in Orlando. He could have made $55,000 annually, but chose to remain in golf making $9.50 an hour. “I loved golf course management. It was no longer about the money,” he says.

Bellerive Country Club team
Carlos Arraya, CGCS (far left) and his senior leadership team within Bellerive Country Club’s maintenance department (from left): Jared Brewster and Nick White, both senior assistant superintendents, and Matthew Lennon, assistant superintendent/championship operations manager.

His decision to stay in the industry paid off. At 20, Arraya became an assistant superintendent at Hawk’s Nest Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., where he spent his spare time securing an associate degree in golf course operations and grounds management from Indian River State College.

To earn extra money, Arraya worked nights resurfacing and conditioning clay courts at The Moorings Yacht & Country Club. “We had a young child and a lot of student debt. Then we found out we were pregnant with (his daughter) Aleanah,” he says.

GCSAA’s job board sparked a new direction. “I knew I needed multicourse experience in Florida to differentiate myself from others,” Arraya says. “I saw Black Diamond Ranch (in Lecanto, Fla.) was looking for an assistant. It said to call John Cunningham, CGCS (director of golf and landscape operations), so, in old-school fashion, I faxed my résumé.” Arraya got the job. On his first day, Arraya hopped into the driver’s seat of a utility vehicle with Cunningham as the passenger. Before they departed, Arraya told Cunningham he’d grab the cup-cutter. That triggered quite a conversation.

“John said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘We’re going to cut cups; aren’t we going to set up?’ He said, ‘Yes, we are headed to lead the setup, but cutting cups — that’s not your job.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m not going to work?’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to work; you’re going to work a whole lot. But you’re not going to be cutting cups for me. You’re too important. I need your leadership.’ I said, ‘Oh, really?’ I was completely perplexed, because I was used to working from a provided list and was responsible for setting up the course every day. I was never taught to lead,” Arraya says.

Cunningham, a 22-year association member, had three assistants at Black Diamond. Their goal? Make it the best-conditioned course in Florida. Cunningham hoped one of the assistants would earn the superintendent job. “He (Cunningham) said to me, ‘You’ve got two paths here. You’re either going to be a great leader in business and focus on you and your development, or you’re going to worry about everybody else and what they say about you, so pick a path.’ That was the fork in the road for me,” Arraya says. “I told him, ‘I’m ready to compete against myself, be better and lead.’ He said, ‘Great. That’s what I thought you were going to say.’”

Arraya earned the job. Now general manager at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., Cunningham says, “With Carlos, every goal I put in front of him, he chewed it up and spit it out. He always set the example. He embraces it, continues to want to get better at it.”

Ultimately, Arraya returned to Hawk’s Nest as director of golf course operations in 2005, and in time served as its general manager. Arraya was instrumental in a $6 million renovation project in 2007, work that was recognized by Golf Digest as the seventh-best remodel in the U.S.

Jesse Alexander, food and beverage director at Hawk’s Nest then, says Arraya worked miracles. “We had limited, dwindling funds and membership. He saw something in me, and I was able to make it happen. He was able to know and appreciate hard work, saw that in others, selected the right people for the right positions to excel,” Alexander says. “He always evoked a team attitude, and he jumped right in. He’d pass out hors d’oeuvres at events. He wore an Elvis costume for a theme party. That’s the level he went to.”

Carlos Arraya CGCS
Arraya (right) meets regularly with the maintenance staff at Bellerive, including (from left) assistants Matthew Lennon, Nick White and Jared Brewster.

After revitalizing Hawk’s Nest, Arraya departed to be superintendent at Venice (Fla.) Golf and Country Club, once again to complete a major renovation. Not being a general manager allowed Arraya an increase in the family time he desired.

Chuck Morabito, his first hire there, was buoyed by Arraya. “He has little sit-downs with you, builds confidence in you, and you leave saying to yourself, ‘I can go out and do this.’ He reminds me of a coach. He motivates you, gets you thinking. While you’re out doing your job, you’re thinking, ‘How can I do this better?’ He was more than just a superintendent keeping the course in shape,” Morabito says.

During his 19 months at Venice Golf and Country Club, Arraya remarried. Then Cunningham — at that time the director of agronomy and assistant general manager at Bellerive — came knocking. Arraya’s assistant at Hawk’s Nest, Christian Millican, wasn’t surprised. “He was always the guy who was going to outwork you,” says Millican, an 18-year GCSAA member who is superintendent at Pointe West Country Club in Vero Beach.

‘The Bellerive Way’

Cunningham departed Bellerive for Aronimink 15 months after hiring Arraya. His exit opened the door for Arraya to carve a new path. He was chosen by Bellerive’s leaders to guide the historic club — which had already hosted a U.S. Open, PGA Championship and other large events — into a new era. Arraya was determined to elevate people, improve the course and change the industry.

A meeting last November was a turning point for Arraya and his staff. What Arraya calls “The Bellerive Way” was formulated. “You hear lots of people discuss their operation’s culture, but when you ask them to define it, no one can. I was determined to define our culture,” Arraya says. “One day, I had my three assistants (Jared Brewster, Matthew Lennon and Nick White) come in, and I wrote the word ‘culture’ on the board and asked them what it means to them, and Jared says, ‘Family and trust.’ Everything all three of them said was about family, trust and connection. I asked them, ‘How do we create it (culture) here? We’ve got standards out the wazoo, but do we have the culture you’ve defined?’ I told them that they are in charge of building that, but I know they needed clarity in their own roles as well.”

Arraya, an avid reader, read “Twelve Pillars,” a novel by Jim Rohn and Chris Widener, which challenges and encourages people to be their best. “It put my life into perspective,” Arraya says. “I thought, ‘How do I make them (the Bellerive team) all feel as if they are pillars of the operation and not just an assistant doing a job?’ I wanted every team member to have the criteria to be the strongest pillar they can be. They needed clearly defined expectations to own.

“For example, with Nick, it was, ‘You’ve got the greens. You’ve got to make them the best greens in the Midwest. Take what you learned in Arkansas (at The Alotian Club), at The National Golf Club of Kansas City, and let’s apply it and grow grass here. You’re going to bring in the best interns, recruit the best turf grads, focus on chemistry and the agronomic plan.’ For us to be successful, every one of them has to do things to the best of their ability. They learn to own their roles and become pillars.”

Bellerive Country Club maintenance department
Each member of the team at Bellerive Country Club serves as a “pillar” in the overall success of the maintenance department. Here, Arraya (left) consults with James McCool (center), reel technician, and Chris Rapp (right), equipment manager.

Arraya holds “weeklies,” which are 15-minute individual chats with staff, and has two rules for the meetings: Bring your agenda, and, if you’re going to talk about a co-worker, prepare to talk about it to his or her face.

Still, pillar management was not enough. Arraya hired Optimus Talent Partners (OTP), which provides talent-management expertise to help operations such as Bellerive grow to their full potential. OTP’s methods include using the Predictive Index, which combines science, technology and management training to supply a business with the data required to make smart “people” decisions. “Everyone we hire takes a behavioral assessment test. The team reviews the assessment results to ensure the individual’s behavior is a good fit for the job vacancy, and, ultimately, lets applicants know if we (Bellerive) are a good fit for them,” Arraya says.

White has bought into Arraya’s applications. “I want to be part of an experience where it matters. Anything that we’re doing, it’s high-stakes,” says White, a six-year GCSAA member. “I think what sets us apart is, we’re very collaborative. We’re open to new ideas and trying new things. We’ll find a way that works.”

Bellerive horticulturist Sarah Worley is a fixture. She has been at the club for 36 years, a span that includes the 1992 PGA Championship. Arraya’s leadership resonates with her. “Carlos is a people person, and he values everyone’s opinion and respects them,” Worley says. “We want everyone to succeed, and that makes us all look good.” Bellerive equipment manager Chris Rapp likes Arraya’s approach, too. “Carlos is not a ‘go do it’ person. He’s more, ‘Come on, let’s go do this.’ He gives everyone freedom, and he trusts,” says Rapp, a four-year GCSAA member.

As a general manager, Arraya delegated authority. Still does. “You’ve got to give up control. If you don’t want to, then it’s all on you,” he says. “There’s no way I can do it all. I can try, but I’ve done it before, and it’s no fun.”

Bellerive Country Club crew

The team wears blue bracelets that are inscribed “#PRESTIGE365” — Persistent. Resilient. Excellent. Strong. Team-driven. Individuals. Growing. Every day. “That’s ‘The Bellerive Way.’ Inclusivity. Transparent. Communication. Growth. Culture. The pillars came from an absolute competitive desire to take this historic club, led by legacy and change, and transition it from a mentality of authoritative governing to take it into the next century,” Arraya says.

Hope and reflection

Arraya sees Aug. 6 at every turn. The date is plastered on doors and placards at Bellerive, a reminder loaded with pride, but also heartbreak.

This was supposed to be Arraya’s year. He turned 40. Aleanah graduated high school. Isaih planned to be on Carlos’ volunteer crew for the PGA Championship. On Aug. 6, practice rounds begin at Bellerive. Sadly, it carries a different meaning for Arraya. Aug. 6 would have been Isaih’s 21st birthday. Tragically, he passed away two years ago following an auto accident.

“I was never going to talk about Isaih, but I learned that sharing his testimony, his journey, could awaken those in our industry,” Arraya says. “There is life outside of the golf course. And it is way more important.

“Isaih was already in the business, working his way through the ranks (as a crew member at Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons Resort Orlando). In many ways, he was living the same life trajectory as me — broken family, felt somewhat abandoned. He and I were really bonding, working through some of those emotions, and we cleared up some of our differences. He visited us in June two years ago. We rode the course together, met our club president on the first tee, and he couldn’t wait to come back and be here for the first day of practice rounds on his 21st birthday. We were going to do it together. Most proudly for me, shortly after his visit, Isaih accepted Jesus Christ in his heart,” Arraya says.

Arraya’s wife, Noemi, consoled him, but he still considered moving to Florida after Isaih died, which would have meant leaving the prospects of hosting the PGA Championship behind.

“I just wanted to be near him even though he passed,” he says. “Every day I think I want to be there closer to his resting place, but I know he is in heaven watching. Isaih’s birth gave me purpose and focused my competitive drive to excel in this business early in my career. Now it fuels me to show others not to waste a second. When you talk about your child, that is losing someone who, in your mind, you’ve always positioned like, ‘Hey, I’m doing everything I need, so when I’m gone, they don’t have to worry about how to bury me.’ But to reverse that, it’s a whole different mindset.

“So this (PGA Championship)? Though historically important, and people say, ‘What if the weather continues to be hot and you lose grass for the championship?’ … Listen, I lost my son. I, like every other superintendent, want nothing more than to have the perfect-conditioned golf course on TV and for the world’s best, but losing grass or not having a perfect-conditioned presentation for the championship are now truly in proper life perspective.

“Isaih showed me how to love. I will show others that this is a way to lead. That’s the superintendent he would have become.”

Noemi says her husband has become more family-oriented and spiritual. “Having his son by his side would have been a teachable moment. Not being able to do that is hard,” she says, “but he is just focused, and he has a switch that is on with or without the championship. It is on to share the story that life is too short. He has no choice. He is always aware of what that (PGA Championship) means to the membership, what it means to be part of Bellerive, and that his staff has everything they need, especially the leadership.”

Arraya wants to believe that hosting a PGA Championship offers an example of growing people, and that it can be a guiding light for others. “It’s pretty special, especially coming from where I came from,” he says. “Maybe it provides people with a little bit of hope, and maybe it makes a statement that you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it with good people at your side.”

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.