American dream: Rafael Barajas, CGCS

Determination and an unwavering commitment to self-improvement have powered Rafael Barajas, CGCS, on his journey to the GCSAA presidency.


Filed to: Florida

Rafael Barajas
Rafael Barajas, CGCS, at Boca Grove Golf and Tennis Club in Boca Raton, Fla. Within just a few years of immigrating to the United States from Mexico at age 14, Barajas found work on a golf course and, in turn, his life’s passion. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Rafael Barajas knows what you’re probably thinking.

The director of golf course maintenance at Boca Grove Golf and Tennis Club in Boca Raton, Fla., doesn’t blame you, either. As he begins his yearlong term as the 83rd president of GCSAA, Barajas knows full well that becoming the first Hispanic president in association history is going to bring with it plenty of attention.

It’s not a part the 33-year GCSAA member shies away from. He knows that with that attention comes opportunity. Opportunity to serve as a role model for other Hispanics working in golf course management. Opportunity to expand recognition for all the positive efforts GCSAA is undertaking on behalf of the industry. And opportunity to strengthen and grow ties with colleagues in other corners of the world.

So Barajas gets it. He understands the interest. He is proud of his heritage and everything it has meant to him during his career. He embraces being known as a Hispanic golf course superintendent and the first Hispanic president of GCSAA. He just hopes that’s not the only thing you think of when you think of him.

And if you take even a cursory look at Barajas’ personal and professional journey in golf course management, it reveals there is much more to him than just his ancestry. There’s a decorated 40-plus-year career that has taken him from one coast to another and points in between. There’s a drive to better himself and those around him through education and professional development. There’s a mission to give back, on both the local and national levels, to an industry that has given him so much.

If others see Rafael Barajas only for where he’s from, they’re just not looking hard enough.

“I’m proud of my heritage, and I’m going to embrace all of this ... because it has a lot of positives — not as much for me, but for our profession as a whole,” Barajas says. “I truly hope there are people who see me at a conference or my picture on the cover of a magazine and think, ‘If he can get involved and do all these things, then I can too.’

“But I really hope most people see me as a professional who is going to have the opportunity to lead our great association as president, who just happens to be Hispanic, instead of just as a Hispanic superintendent or the Hispanic president of GCSAA.”

2018 GCSAA President Darren Davis, CGCS, of Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples, Fla., has worked with Barajas on the national board for eight years and can attest to that and to the many skills Barajas will bring to the table during his year in office.

“Rafael’s story and the ways that he utilized GCSAA to help achieve all that he has in his professional life give him a unique perspective that has been evident during his tenure on the board of directors,” Davis says. “He has a passion for the game of golf, the business of golf course management, and for sharing with other golf course superintendents everything that involvement with the association can do for one’s career.”

A family affair

During what was undoubtedly the biggest week of his professional life, Rafael Barajas found himself playing second fiddle to another member of his family. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Just a few days after Barajas was officially elected to his post as GCSAA president last month at the Golf Industry Show in San Diego, his father, Pedro, celebrated his 100th birthday.

The reasons to celebrate the occasion went beyond the obvious. Pedro and his wife, Elvira, raised a family of 14 — five daughters and nine sons. Rafael, who was the fourth youngest of those siblings, was 14 years old when the family moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1978.

That they all were able to celebrate his father’s remarkable life and his own professional accomplishments at the same time during his visit to Southern California was clearly gratifying for Rafael. “It’s very fitting that we were able to do that,” Rafael says. “All of our family and friends were there, just to show him a good time and how much we all appreciated everything he did for us. He’s a very special man.”

Indeed. To hear Rafael tell it, the confluence of events in San Diego was an appropriate one, because much of the credit for all that he has achieved during his golf course management career can be traced back to the lessons of his parents.

Most notable, at least as it relates to this story, are the work ethic and positive attitude that Pedro tried to instill in his children. Although he worked many jobs after immigrating to the U.S., Pedro’s frequent work on golf courses made the biggest impact, not only on Rafael, but on two of his brothers who also now work in the business. Rafael’s younger brother, Hector, is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Sierra Lakes Golf Club in Fontana, Calif., and his older brother, Jose, works as the assistant superintendent at Sunset Hills Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Rafael Barajas family

Right: Barajas’ immediate family includes (front row, from left) his daughter, Veronica, his wife, Yolanda, and (back row, from left) his three sons, Marco Antonio, Daniel and Rafael Jr., who is currently in the U.S. Marines stationed in Japan. Photo courtesy of Rafael Barajas

Asked whether his father was proud that Rafael would be spending the next year as GCSAA’s president, Rafael said, “He is proud, but he is proud of all of us. He’s happy, and I think he feels that he accomplished something in life because not only me, but all of my family members, my brothers and sisters, we’re all doing great. I think that makes him the happiest of all.”

And if Pedro were to talk to others about the son he raised in Rafael, that pride would only grow.

“One of the things that’s important to me is that people bring passion and energy to their jobs. Clearly, Rafael has both of those,” says Frank Maddalena, a former hospital executive who served as club president at Boca Grove. “If you’re passionate and you’re energetic about your work ... those personality traits will inculcate your staff and those around you. For me, that’s what Rafael has brought here and why he has such a great team working for him.”

Mike Gibson, Boca Grove’s general manager, saw firsthand the influence and connection that Rafael has in the industry during a trip to the John Deere Classic last year. “I think what I learned the most was how deep his network is and the respect that people have for Rafael,” Gibson says. “That really is a product of who he is as a person, but it’s also a product of GCSAA, how people view that organization and what they’ve been able to create.”

One of Rafael’s best friends in the business, Rafael Martinez, the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Hacienda Golf Club in La Habra Heights, Calif., adds, “As a golf course superintendent, Rafael has been very successful, not only on the agronomic side, but he also has a great ability to communicate and connect with people in our industry, at home and abroad. He is always willing to help people and will take the time to talk with you, whether it’s about agronomy, business, GCSAA or life in general.”

Quick study

When his family moved to the U.S., Barajas spoke no English and knew little about life in America. But inside of two years, he had found work on the golf course at Sunset Hills — where his brother Jose had already established himself as the assistant superintendent — and, unwittingly, a career that would become his life’s passion.

He showed an almost immediate affinity for the job. A year after starting at Sunset Hills, he was managing the club’s weekend maintenance crews. One year later, he took a position as the assistant superintendent at Mountain Gate Country Club in Los Angeles. After two years there, the management company that oversaw the facility, American Golf, added the municipal golf courses for the city of Long Beach, Calif., to its portfolio and asked Barajas to manage one of those properties.

“I was a little shocked,” he admits now. “I was only 20 years old. No school. No degree. Limited English, because it was my second language. But I was never afraid to figure out how to get the job done. My belief was always that if somebody else could do it, there was no reason why I couldn’t.”

Boca Grove Golf
Barajas with his top lieutenants in the maintenance department at Boca Grove: Corey Hibbert (left), second assistant superintendent and a one-year GCSAA member, and Jose Nava (right), assistant superintendent and a 14-year member of GCSAA. Photo by Montana Pritchard

Barajas might have convinced others that he could do the job at that point, but he hadn’t necessarily convinced himself. Oh, he was plenty confident that he could handle the work and accomplish the tasks set in front of him on the golf course — he just wasn’t quite as confident that a long-term career in golf course management was for him.

Until, that is, he picked up a golf club for the first time. “One of the members at Sunset Hills gave me a set of golf clubs — Arnold Palmer VIPs with aluminum shafts,” Barajas says. “So I started playing, and I just fell in love with the game. And I figured the only way I was going to be able to keep playing and afford to keep playing was if I stuck with the job and started to move up the ladder.”

So that’s what he did, on both fronts. Barajas developed into an excellent, low-handicap player who still tees it up as often as his schedule allows. And he began to get serious about improving his skills as a golf course superintendent, using as many avenues for that education as were necessary.

“We had no idea how far he was going to be able to go in the industry,” says his brother Hector. “When he first started working in golf, it was definitely just a job. But when he got those golf clubs and fell in love with the game ... well, the rest is history.”

An educated effort

The relationship Barajas built with American Golf in Long Beach led to a nine-year stint with the company during which he managed various golf courses under its watch. From there, he took an opportunity to help build and grow-in a golf course in Arizona. When that venture ended, he returned to California and worked at golf courses in both the Palm Desert and San Diego areas.

Not surprisingly, this stage of upward mobility in Barajas’ professional life was made possible by his newfound dedication to education and involvement, which also helped set the stage for his move onto the GCSAA board and, ultimately, his election to the association’s presidency.

Not that any of that was on his mind when he began that journey. “I did not have a plan,” Barajas says. “My only plan was always to just be the best I could be, to always participate, to always leave things better than when I came in, to attend meetings and to continue my professional development. Being on the board or becoming president was never a plan. I just wanted to keep improving myself.”

Early on, that largely meant attending local chapter meetings, which Barajas calls “the beginning of my education.” He became a regular face at those meetings, devouring whatever content was being shared and taking advantage of every networking opportunity.

“When I first started, I was the youngest at every meeting,” he says. “I was 20 years old. People looked at me like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ It was mostly older white guys, so yeah, I felt awkward in the beginning. But I figured, ‘You know what? They’ll get used to me.’ And they did. I didn’t give them a choice. I just kept showing up.

“My priority became ... getting myself education and making sure I did the things that needed to be done to remain relevant in the industry. I decided I was not going to miss an opportunity to learn because I didn’t have that formal education.”

That dedication to self-improvement reached its peak in October 1990, when Barajas earned his status as a Certified Golf Course Superintendent. “It was 10 years from the time I started in golf, not really knowing anything about it, to the time I earned my certification,” Barajas says.

Home sweet home

In 1995, Barajas was able to plant long-term roots in the golf course management business for the first time, accepting the job overseeing maintenance at Hacienda Golf Club (where his good friend Martinez now works). He viewed that as the logical payoff for his single-minded focus on ongoing improvement throughout the first part of his career, but also as a spot that could be a launching pad for even greater successes.

At Hacienda, Barajas displayed skills that revealed a fully matured superintendent, one who successfully balanced the agronomic, business and personnel management sides of the business, says Frank Cordeiro, then Hacienda’s chief operating officer and general manager and currently the COO at Diablo (Calif.) Country Club.

Boca Grove Golf staff
Since joining the club in 2015, Barajas (center) has focused on building a strong team in Boca Grove’s maintenance department. That team now includes (from left to right) Nava; Hibbert; Claudia Talamantes, the administrative assistant in the maintenance department; Anthony Poma, equipment manager and a one-year GCSAA member; and Yohan Hernandez, the assistant equipment manager and a two-year member of the association. Photo by Montana Pritchard

“Rafael’s ability to assess and dissect complex issues and explain them to others with simplicity was a skill that helped our team at Hacienda Golf Club succeed, no matter the challenge,” Cordeiro says. “His talent and leadership, combined with his passion for the club and our industry, left a lasting impression on the membership and on our team of employees there.”

During his time at Hacienda, Barajas also finally dived into higher education, earning a turfgrass management certificate from the University of California, Riverside. Interestingly, it was a program he partially helped develop as an adviser to the school during the program’s creation. When one of his assistants at Hacienda expressed an interest in earning a certificate himself, Barajas figured the time was right for him to do the same.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to be supportive of his enrollment, I should just go and do it myself,’” he says. “So I did, not because I felt like I needed to prove anything to anybody, but because I felt like it was going to make me a better professional.”

It was also at Hacienda that Barajas began the journey that would lead to the GCSAA presidency. After benefiting so much from involvement at the chapter level, he decided it was time to give back through board service, first with the GCSA of Southern California, then with his state chapter, the California GCSA, and ultimately with a successful run for a spot on GCSAA’s national board of directors, which he joined in 2011.

Making the move

After nearly two decades at Hacienda GC, Barajas noticed that his eyes had begun to wander. Job postings he used to ignore were becoming more and more interesting to him. He began to think a change might be in order.

That wanderlust had nothing to do with his situation at Hacienda, Barajas insists. “I had a phenomenal job at Hacienda, a great employer who was extremely supportive of all my professional development and the things that I wanted to do,” he says. “We had a great relationship.”

Still, the time seemed right. His four children — daughter, Veronica, and three sons, Daniel, Rafael Jr. and Marco — were grown and out of the house, leaving him and his wife, Yolanda, to focus on their future. Also, because both of them had spent most of their adult lives in Southern California, a change of scenery held legitimate appeal.

And, as fortune would have it, about that same time, Barajas learned about the open position at Boca Grove. A move all the way across the country to Florida was never at the top of the list for Barajas — he had studied openings in Arizona and Texas, but had hardly considered the Sunshine State. But with the encouragement of longtime colleague David Gourlay, CGCS, who had previously served as the general manager at Boca Grove, Barajas applied for the job. The entire process was brief — a pair of Skype interviews and a trip to Florida for a face-to-face meeting in less than a week’s time — and before he and Yolanda knew it, he had been offered the job.

“We were ready for a new opportunity, and to try new things somewhere else,” Barajas says. “I just feel fortunate that this position was available at a place as special as Boca Grove, a great golf course and great people. We’re very lucky.”

Boca Grove golf club
Boca Grove has more than 400 single-family homes and a host of amenities, including the 18-hole championship golf course. The senior leadership at Boca Grove includes (from left) current club president Randy Miller; Barajas; Shawn Costello, Boca Grove’s director of golf; and Michael Gibson, the club’s general manager. Photo by Montana Pritchard

For the folks at Boca Grove, the feeling is mutual. “I’ve belonged to country clubs that had talented superintendents, but they didn’t have the greatest people skills,” says Randy Miller, who was on the nominating committee that hired Barajas and has also served as Boca Grove’s green chairman throughout Barajas’ tenure there. “We were not looking for that here. We wanted someone who could deliver a good product on the golf course, but also someone who felt like they were a part of us and what we were doing here. And that’s what we found in Rafael. He came across to us as the real deal, and he’s lived up to that.”

Presidential privilege

Although Barajas was never shy about his desire to give back to the golf course management industry and willingly stepped into roles at the chapter and state levels, national service was another matter.

At least initially.

“I was asked to run a couple of times, but at first, I really didn’t think I was qualified,” Barajas says. “I worried because English was my second language ... that I didn’t have the vast vocabulary that others have. Things like that held me back a little bit. But I was never afraid of the challenge, the responsibility and the opportunities it could present.”

And now, he’s thrilled he eventually accepted that challenge. “It’s been a great privilege, the greatest of my career,” he says. “More than that, it’s an awesome responsibility to represent all the members of GCSAA — and the whole golf industry, really. I’m honored that so many had so much faith in me to do that.”

To Gibson, it’s an accomplishment that Barajas has every right to be proud of. “I told him the other day, ‘Don’t hide your enthusiasm for this, your excitement. You committed to this many, many years ago, and you deserve full credit for staying with it and seeing it all the way to this point.’ I’m just really proud of the path he’s taken to get here, and all of us at the club feel the same way.”

Scott Hollister is GCM’s editor-in-chief.