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2018 PGA Championship preview: A superintendent for the people

By |  August 6, 2018 0 Comments
Carlos Arraya on golf course

After his son’s life was cut short two years ago in a tragic car accident, Carlos Arraya, CGCS, decided to make the most of his relationships.

Some superintendents love their work because they get to be outdoors, or for the pleasure of seeing the sunrise each morning.

Sunrises are nice, but they aren’t what get Carlos Arraya, CGCS at Bellerive CC in St. Louis, out of bed early every morning. He loves his job for one reason: the people.

It’s not that he specifically loves his crew (though he does). Arraya is like Rod Tidwell at the end of Jerry Maguire… he loves everybody. Even if he weren’t preparing for the 100th PGA Championship — put him in a blue vest greeting customers at Walmart, he says — it would still be about people.

Arraya’s always been a people person. That’s why it was so hard when he lost one of the most important people in his life.

Significant date

The 100th PGA Championship opens play on Monday, Aug. 6. It’s a significant date for everyone at Bellerive and at the PGA of America, but for Arraya, that date has a larger meaning than any golf tournament, even the major playing at his course.

Aug. 6 would have been the 21st birthday of his son Isaih — whose life was cut short two years ago in a tragic car accident in Florida.

Isaih Arraya

Zeke Arraya in July 2016, giving the thumbs-up to his boss Rusty Wilson at Tranquilo GC in Orlando.

Isaih, called “Zeke,” followed his dad into the business. Arraya had just recently been promoted at Bellerive when the accident happened.

“He was in the golf business, following behind me,” Arraya says. “A year ago, this was a no-fly zone for me, I couldn’t talk about it. I’m spiritual… going through that allowed me to really invest more in people.”

Arraya is happy to talk about turf types and major championship pressures in a hot and humid St. Louis climate (more on these topics shortly), but the tragedy of losing his son redirected his energy into people. He’d rather talk about culture, about helping people succeed, than getting Bellerive’s Meyer zoysiagrass fairways perfectly firm for the best players in the world.

Sarah Worley, arborist for the club, has been working at Bellerive for 36 years. She’s on her sixth superintendent and eighth general manager. This will be her sixth professional tournament there. Her experience at Bellerive is so rich that she jokes the 100th PGA Championship is “exciting,” but “another opportunity for people to trample everything.”

She sets her cynicism aside when it comes to the culture at Bellerive. Like the rest of the crew, she’s bought in.

“(Arraya’s) a good listener, he always consults the management team and doesn’t act as the sole decision maker… and yet everything falls on his shoulders,” Worley says. “He’s very reasonable, very respectful of everyone and of what their needs are. This is truly the closest to a solid team, a solid working environment, that I’ve experienced here.”

The word: culture

Carlos Arraya at white board

Arraya illustrates his management style with an
inverted pyramid. His team is at the bottom, not top.

Arraya worked at Bellerive for a year under his friend and mentor John Cunningham, CGCS, director of agronomy. When Cunningham accepted the general manager/COO position at Aronimink GC in Philadelphia, it opened the door for Arraya.

Cunningham and Arraya first worked together 15 years ago in Florida at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto.

“He was young back then but I guess I was young then too,” Cunningham laughs. “I was morphing into a general manager role at Bellerive and I needed someone like-minded with strong leadership skills. The first person I thought of was Carlos.”

Cunningham became certified while at Black Diamond, and Arraya, then an assistant, approached him about wanting to achieve the title of superintendent.

“I didn’t want to hand him the title, I wanted him to earn it,” Cunningham recalls. “I put together a program and he devoured it. His thirst for knowledge sets him apart. He wants to get better everyday. It’s a cliché, but he’s not satisfied with the status quo.”

The first thing Arraya did after Cunningham left for Aronimink was assemble the leadership team around the dry-erase board in his new office. He wrote the word “culture” and asked his team to define it. The answers varied, but a common theme was family, communication and being trustworthy.

“I knew we would struggle with the recruitment of labor. I knew we were going to struggle with the weather,” Arraya says. “But we will not struggle with each other, period. All of them connected to being open and having honest conversations.

“I was a general manager over eight departments, 80 people (at Hawk’s Nest GC, Vero Beach, Fla.), so I had four years of understanding that you have a lot of different challenges,” Arraya continues. “But one thing was constant: Understanding what makes people tick helps them maximize themselves in the workplace.”

Arraya also believes that a good culture necessitates a proper work/life balance. He wants his crew members to spend more time with their families than with Bellerive’s fairways. He wants the same for the entire industry.

“Culture is about having a balance. If you’re always here, that’s a problem,” Arraya says. “The time will come when we have to ramp up for the championship. But you can always find something to do on the golf course. You could get a mobile home and live out here, be here all the time. That’s not balanced. We’re moving into a progressive world. Young kids are coming into the industry and the industry needs to change. If you really want to promote culture you can’t be working 90-hour workweeks. I’ll do everything I can in my time in the industry to change that, whether I’m at Bellerive or somewhere else.”

“Led by legacy”

Bellerive CC has a proud history, and was first established as a club in 1897, with the golf course, a Robert Trent Jones design, constructed 63 years later in 1960. The course underwent a renovation in 2005, led by RTJ’s son Rees Jones. Previous tournaments include the 1965 U.S. Open (won by Gary Player); the 1992 PGA Championship (won by Nick Price); the 2001 WGC-American Express Championship (cancelled in the wake of Sept. 11); the 2004 U.S. Senior Open (won by Peter Jacobsen); the 2008 BMW Championship (won by Camilo Villegas); and the 2013 Senior PGA Championship (won by Koki Idoki.)

The course’s motto is “Led by legacy,” and that legacy has brought an all-star crew of up-and-comers to the course, including assistant superintendents Jared Brewster (previously at Augusta National and Victoria National), Nick White (previously at Alotian Club and the National Golf Club of Kansas City) and the young Matthew Lennon, returning to the site of his internship after graduating from Michigan State University last spring.

St. Louis is well known for its hot, humid summers. The greens at Bellerive are A-4 bentgrass and the fairways are Meyer zoysiagrass, which can thrive in the heat with aggressive management. It’s all hands on deck when temperatures surpass 90 and humidity rises, says Assistant Superintendent Jared Brewster.

“We were one of the hottest cities in America last year — we had a day when it got up to 116 degrees in July,” says Brewster. “We’re trying to get the greens prepared for the tournament, because the goal isn’t just to have the best possible conditions for the tournament, but also to still have a course left when they leave.”

“It’s a team mentality here, that’s really a big thing for us,” says fellow Assistant Nick White. “I wanted a job where I felt like I could provide input where I could be an assistant to the superintendent. Carlos sees it the same way. He wants to help us improve our careers and help us, eventually, become superintendents.”

That “newborn feeling”

Arraya loves what he calls the “newborn feeling” of seeing the course getting freshly manicured each morning. But it’s all secondary to seeing his crew each morning rolling in to punch the clock.

“So many times, you talk to people in our industry and they love golf, or they love being outside. I love grass and the golf course, but the people are just so important to me,” Arraya says. “I love people. I want to connect to people. I want to know what makes them motivated, what makes them frustrated, what makes them maximize who they are.”

Arraya rarely has a bad day anymore. His perspective has changed since the death of his son.

“What’s a bad day? The members are upset because we didn’t hit a standard?” Arraya shakes his head. “When you go through a tragic loss like I did with my son, that pales in comparison. When we moved here, (Isaih) decided to stay in Florida working at a golf course, and he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He called me, and he said, ‘Dad, I know now that I love it.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Boy, I did all this work… I don’t want you to get into this business.’ But we connected. And then God called, and he had a responsibility to honor that call.”

There is good news, he says: Six people on the Bellerive staff are expecting babies. One of those babies is due on Isaih’s birthday.

“It’s all interconnected. You and I live like tomorrow is guaranteed. We talk, we make plans, and then…” Arraya snaps his fingers. “It allows you to put things in perspective.”

The 2018 PGA Championship tees off Aug. 6.

Happy birthday, Isaih.

Photos by: Seth Jones (1, 3); Rusty Wilson (2)

For more on the 2018 PGA Championship preview, check out the stories of a few of the championship’s some 150 volunteers.

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