Rafael Barajas has quite the story to tell

Renowned golf course superintendent who served as the 83rd GCSAA president in 2019 couldn’t speak English or knew golf existed when he arrived in the U.S. 

ORLANDO — With more than 19,000 Golf Course Superintendents Association of America members in close to 80 countries worldwide there are countless stories of remarkable paths to becoming the game’s green grass gatekeepers.

Few rival the journey of 59-year-old Rafael Barajas, who grew up on a farm in Mexico, couldn’t speak English when he came to the United States as a 14-year-old as one of 14 children, didn’t know golf existed and ended up ascending to the top of the GCSAA hierarchy as organization president in 2019.

"When we moved to Los Angeles with my family everything was foreign to me, including the language, the people, the food — everything,” says Barajas at last week's annual GCSAA Conference and Trade Show. "I knew nothing. Not the word ‘hello,’ nothing. It was a bit of a challenge and a bit of a culture shock, but you know as a kid you get adapt. You adapt and you change and you make things work."

Barajas, who has eight brothers and five sisters, started working in the golf industry back in 1980, when one of his older brothers got him a job at Sunset Hills Country Club in California. At the age of 16, he began on the grounds crew cutting cups and doing various odd jobs.

Rafael Barajas, 59, served as the Golf Course Superintendent Association of America's 83rd president in 2019, but has returned to the superintendent ranks in Texas.

"I had no idea what golf was. The word didn't exist in my vocabulary, in my mind," he says. “I grew up on a farm so there was nothing like golf around. When I first got on a course I thought ‘What is this?’ It was just a beautiful, beautiful setting. With all the green areas and me growing up on a farm it just seemed like a natural fit for me."

Barajas soon fell in love with the sport after he was given a set of clubs from a member at Sunset Hills — Arnold Palmer VIPs with aluminum shafts,

"I wish I still had those clubs now," he laughs. "I just fell in love with golf. I started playing and I said to myself ‘I can get pretty good at this.’ I always had good eye-hand coordination, and I don't think my handicap ever got above 12. So I had the knack for it.

"And you know one of the reasons why I stayed in the business, and this is a true story, was because I understood that the higher I would get up the ladder the more opportunities I was gonna be able to get play great courses."

Over the next five years, Barajas began landing promotions at various courses in California and soon got involved in local and state superintendent’s organizations.

He was always the youngest in the room and admitted he felt awkward at times. In fact, by the age of 20, Barajas was the golf course superintendent at Recreation Park Golf Course in Long Beach, California.

Despite his youth, he kept his head down and forged on, later leading to high profile agronomy positions in Arizona, Florida and now Texas.

He believed educating himself on the finer points of his craft would provide a leg up on his competition through the years.

"You need to work hard or otherwise you won't get noticed," Barajas says. "My father instilled in us to work hard and not worry about what other people do because you don't have any control over that. A great work ethic really paid off for me."

People in the industry have often asked Barajas how he overcame the long odds. It all points back to his teenage years when he made a promise to himself.

"I’m never going to change who I am," he says. "But when I got into this industry I knew that I had to adapt. So having the ability to adapt to ever-changing plans in the industry allowed me to be successful. With English as a second language I had to make a decision on how I would need to survive, by going to school, by educating myself, by attending as many GCSAA seminars as I could.

"I certainly knew my deficiency. The first thing was agronomics, right? I wanted to be stronger in agronomics because I didn't really have any formal training, just mentoring, and I felt that wasn't good enough or going to be a key to immediate success. After that, I ended up switching gears and turned my attention to personnel management. Being young, you need to learn how to deal with people, how to manage people, right? And lead by example, understanding that people follow you because of three reasons — they either like you, they respect you or they fear you. And I wanted to learn how to get people to like me and respect me so that they could follow me — not the fear factor."

Barajas was recently lured out of retirement to become director of agronomy at Laredo County Club in Texas.

"They called and said 'Hey, we need some help,'" he says. "They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse."

So, Barajas is back toiling on the turf, enjoying the sunset years of what has evolved into a remarkable career in a game that 45 years ago wasn’t even a blimp on his teenage radar.

"It was a privilege and honor and a lot of fun to serve as the 83rd GCSAA president," Barajas says.

And then he stated the rather obvious with his head held high.

"I came a long way didn’t I, from not being able to speak English?" he says. “Yeah, I did, yeah I did.”