Interview with Current GCSAA President Rafael Barajas

GCSAA President Rafael Barajas
GCSAA President Rafael Barajas

Since 1926, GCSAA has been the top golf course management professional association in the United States and worldwide. Headquartered in Lawrence, Kansas., it provides education, information, and representation to more than 18,000 members in more than 78 countries. Its mission is to serve its members, advance the profession and enhance the vitality of the game of golf.

Recently, Golf Course Trades’ Jay Flemma sat down with GCSAA president Rafael Barajas for an update on how his one-year tenure as president is going and what the future holds for the GCSAA.

GCT: How did you first get into golf?

RB: My brother was assistant superintendent at a course in Thousand Oaks called Sunset Hills C.C. When I was 16 he got me a job there. I started on the grounds crew. I started playing golf then too and got hooked on the game. A member of the club gave me a set of Arnold Palmer clubs with aluminum shafts, and I was off and running.

GCT: How did you decide you wanted to be in the turfgrass industry and what steps did your career path follow?

RB: I realized I loved the game and wanted to make it my life. I figured out at a young age that if I was going to play the game, working on the golf course could help me be a better player and, likewise, by becoming a superintendent, I could spend the rest of my life giving back to the game I love. I could also play a lot of golf along the way.

I stayed at Thousand Oaks for two years, and then I became assistant super at Mountain Gate C.C. in west L.A, and then became head super at Recreation Park G.C. in Long Beach.

That’s when I started getting involved in local chapter of the GCSAA. I attended seminars, took continuing education classes, and tried to learn everything I could since I didn’t have a formal education. I took as many classes as they offered. I have about 150 ce units. So then I became a certified super in 1990.

GCT: Was that one of the ways you were able to rise in the ranks to become president of the GSCAA?

RB: Absolutely. Professional development was integral. I kept in touch with as many people as I could.

GCT: Talk to everybody about everything all the time, eh?

RB: Exactly.

GCT: Now I would bet that the GSCAA has some programs or other career resources to help other young, up-and-coming industry leaders with their professional development too?

RB: We do. We have excellent career resources, and we have stellar continuing education. There are hundreds of free webinars, affordable education programs in other area, and affinity programs that are discounts for members. And I also helped develop a certification program for turfgrass management at Cal-Riverside. I took that very program myself in 1995, the first year it as offered. There was a need for it, both the program and the locale. It helped me and it helped people who came after me. The first year we had 25 people in th e 2-year program, and now it’s become a viable and vibrant program. We need to keep as many programs like this as we can up and running.

GCT: If you could take students to five courses in the U.S. to study their maintenance techniques and technology, which would they be and why?

RB: I think the best education for students comes from volunteering at courses that hold PGA events and majors. Get on the grounds crew, and you’ll get a terrific education from the ground up. They would get to learn from the best courses maintained at the highest level. They’d get to see real world problem solving under immediate conditions. And they’d see them most innovative, state-of-the-art tech in the business.

GCT: What do you think are the biggest technological breakthroughs of the last ten years in golf course maintenance?

RB: Irrigation technology and water application are huge. Water management is a critical issue; it’s scarce and we have to protect it and use it wisely. So it has to be applied in an efficient way. Also new turfgrasses: we have new drought-tolerant species of turf that minimize application of inputs and help with water conservation. Finally, GPS technology has many applications, including precise application of both inputs and water.

GCT: What’s the best way for a municipal golf course to keep the budget down yet maximize conditioning?

RB: That’s a tough one – it is a business, they have to understand their customers’ expectations and deliver product accordingly. That’s the key to remaining sustainable.

GCT: Okay, but what if expectations are unrealistic – say a small private club with members that want Augusta National-like conditions?

RB: That’s where education and communication with members come into play. You have to refine those expectations so you can apply your resources accordingly.

GCT: What initiatives have you created since your tenure began?

RB: Well, there are initiatives we already have going right now that I am going to steward to the finish line before I start on any of my own!


Right now, we’re concentrating on BMPs (best management practices): helping all 50 states develop a BMP template by 2020, everything from water management to pesticide management to wildlife protection and other environmental considerations. We have a Grass Roots Ambassador program where our members interact with all 538 members of congress. Finally, we also have a membership growth and retention program. Our goal is to reach 20,000 members by 2020. We’re looking strategically as to where we’ll be in 2025, 2030, and beyond for even more growth for both us and for the industry.

GCT: Recently an activist complained to me he quit playing golf because “Golf is bad for the environment. It uses too much fossil fuel.” How do you respond to this criticism? What are the latest environmental protective breakthroughs the golf turfgrass industry has recently spearheaded?

RB: You just have to educate people as to the facts. Supers and architects are always trying to protect the environment. Now many courses use electric mowers just like they use electric carts. They’re widespread, many courses have them, not just high-end country clubs. Also, inputs are expensive, so who wants to spend a budget unwisely? They must be used sparingly, for both a wise budget and wise sustainability.

GCT: What is the biggest challenge the craft of golf course maintenance faces going forward?

RB: Education of people and golfers, and good communication.

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