El Jefe Cal Club No. 26

El Jefe

Javier Campos' path from undocumented immigrant to superintendent of The Cal Club

I broke the silence. “Mucho gusto, mi buen.” Javier Campos’ shoulders relaxed and a small smile flashed across his face. “Hola, Fernando. Mucho gusto en conocerte.”

I didn’t know what to expect when he walked into the restaurant of the California Golf Club of San Francisco with general manager Glenn Smickley and former club president Allan Jamieson. But I knew greeting him in Spanish was the best first step. More here than even in our native Mexico, our first language unites us.

Undocumented Mexicans are a regular sight on golf course maintenance crews across the United States, especially in California. But Javier Campos is an uncommon man: He is a former undocumented immigrant who has risen to become superintendent of Cal Club.

El Jefe Javier Campos Cal Club

When I requested the meeting, I did not yet know if I would write about Javier. More than anything, I just wanted to introduce myself. In my experience, when one Mexican sees another successful Mexican in a different country, especially the United States, we are drawn to them. We want to know their journey, to commiserate about the hurdles overcome, to reminisce about back home (mostly the food) and to gather any advice to help us on our own path. Once I discovered that Javier had accomplished so much in golf, my desire to meet him skyrocketed.

I am fortunate. From an early age, I took trips with my family at least once a year. Traveling and exploring are part of me now. And I learned that while I enjoy the discoveries, the illusion of change and the joy of adventure, they are nothing compared to the feeling of returning home. However, not all trips are for pleasure. Another part of my upbringing was the reality that so many of my compatriots must leave their homes not knowing when they will return, if ever. Migration is a social, cultural and economic fixture in Mexico. It’s part of life. I’ve learned the hard lesson that exploring is nothing like leaving in order to survive.

I still live in Mexico, but my regular job along with my second career as a part-time golf journalist often bring me to the United States. Having friends on both sides of the border has shown me how painful migration can be for all involved. The politics of it are difficult, and many times I’ve had to perform delicate dances in conversations.

But I choose to take a positive outlook. I still believe much of America’s greatness stems from the potential for anyone to fulfill their dream, no matter where they come from. And I see it in many successful immigrant stories: I have met caddies, greenskeepers, general managers, executives, players and journalists who have made the most out of their journeys. I admire the strength it takes to walk away from that joy of returning home to instead search for the opportunity that could change their lives.

I have an uncle who experienced being an immigrant in the United States, seeking to make a space for himself in the fashion industry. He achieved many of his dreams, and he recently told me that the difference we must talk about when it comes to immigrants is that they are “givers” more than “takers.” Those words resound in me. They live in Javier as well. 

El Jefe Javier Campos Cal Club
Photo: Kohjiro Kinno

He arrived in Northern California from San Juan de los Lagos (population: roughly 70,000) in the Mexican state of Jalisco when he was 1 year old. His family took a huge risk in uprooting to come to the U.S., but Javier’s father found a good job in construction. His family sheltered him from trouble, guided him with a strong work ethic and took him back to Mexico periodically to help him stay connected to his roots.

Javier did not come from a golfing family. Work took priority over everything in those early years, sometimes even school. He and his family became U.S. citizens when he was 7 years old, and at 15 he took a job in the suit department of a J.C. Penney. In 2004, his brother-in-law was working on the maintenance crew at Cal Club and came to him with an opportunity to join. Javier asked what the job would entail, and his brother-in-law explained that, in golf course maintenance, it’s always a little of everything. But it paid more than his current job. So, at 17, without knowing anything about golf or agronomy, Javier made the leap.

Over the years, my conversations have taught me that success is a mixture of luck and work. You may be lucky to find a person who puts a unique opportunity in front of you, but if you do not take advantage of it, that luck won’t last long. Like many immigrants who get a chance, Javier came humbly to do his job well. He worked hard to understand his environment and his tasks, and to meet people at the club with respect.

In those early days, Javier had no ambition to become the club’s superintendent. But, after a few months, he found that he liked the work. That created another break: Thomas Bastis, Cal Club’s superintendent at the time, noticed Javier’s efforts and identified his potential. He took him under his wing.

When we spoke, Javier got emotional sharing what Bastis meant to him.

“He trusted someone who came without knowledge,” Javier told me. “Someone from another culture. I had not even studied yet, but he had bigger plans for me. I am so thankful he believed in me.”

Meanwhile, Jamieson was at the forefront of the 2007 effort to renovate the golf course. Javier was ascending on the maintenance team, falling deeper in love with the daily details of tending to an elite club.

Kyle Phillips was the architect behind returning the magic to Cal Club, and he rightly deserves to be celebrated for his work. But it was Bastis and his team who got their hands dirty, ensuring that those changes endured in daily play. That time solidified Javier’s place on Bastis’ team and dictated his career path. They enjoyed the following years, refining their processes as the club returned to prominence. In 2017, Bastis called Javier to his office. “Prepare your résumé,” Bastis told him, “because I’m leaving and you’re applying for this job.”

El Jefe Javier Campos Cal Club

Javier says he was surprised, and didn’t believe he was ready. But Bastis had begun preparing him for this moment years earlier: He got the club to pay for Javier to get a turf management certificate from Rutgers University, where he learned about the maintenance teams from Pine Valley to Pebble Beach. Bastis believed Javier had what the club needed: knowledge, attention to detail, more than a decade on site, positive leadership and the old super’s stamp of approval.

Javier had his doubts. He was a Mexican immigrant. Could someone with his background really land such a position at a club of this stature? I know this feeling. It’s something that is hard for natives to comprehend. The list of qualified immigrants who have been passed over in every industry is too long to count.

Still, he prepared his résumé. He toured the course with the club president. He interviewed with Smickley. He met with other prominent members. And, at the age of 30, Javier got the job. Judging from the beautiful rapport among Smickley, Jamieson and Javier during our conversation, along with the course’s continued strong reputation, everyone is happy with the decision. It is clear they all have a deep respect for the club and each other.

Javier knew that when he got the job, the work would become even more difficult. Sometimes it is easier to put your head down and do the menial tasks of course maintenance. As superintendent, Javier was now el jefe.

“The trickiest thing was gaining the trust of a team that I was suddenly leading,” he told me. “But I am very proud to say that my team of around 25 people is 75% Mexican origin, 15% Central American and some locals. And I get along wonderfully with everyone.”

He stresses to them the lessons he learned from his family and Bastis: Pay attention to the smallest details and constantly look for ways to improve both the course and in life. Since his appointment, Javier has helped push through a new maintenance building, and this year he graduated with another degree, a B.A. in business administration from Cal State East Bay.

Seventeen years have passed since Javier has been home to visit San Juan de los Lagos. But he believes at some point he will return with his family. “I miss the ranch, the cousins. I want my son and daughter to see where we come from,” he told me. “I miss the food. I want them to eat what I used to eat, to see the sunsets on horseback that I used to enjoy.” Since our conversation, I’ll see images of Cal Club and wonder if Javier thinks of each bunker and green like those treasured memories from home. Perhaps that is why he treats them with such care. Perhaps that is why he smiled so easily when we first spoke our native tongue.

El Jefe Javier Campos Cal Club

Want more from Cal Club? Dig into our Yardage Book feature highlighting the club’s seventh hole, nicknamed “The Pinnacle.”