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Running into a new life

Dec 18, 2023

The golf course maintenance industry is a competitive, demanding and all too often thankless industry. Maintenance crews work tirelessly, day after day, in heat, rain, snow … you name it … to provide members and patrons exceptional course conditions.

Whether it's early-morning starts, late-evenings finishes, equipment breakdowns or any other hurdle, the maintenance team is expected to deliver daily without excuses. Unfortunately, the pressure of the daily grind, economic woes and the numerous other challenges a superintendent faces can become overwhelming. The demands are mentally testing the good men and women everywhere throughout the industry.

Managing your personal life in an extremely demanding industry while staying positive, focused and above all happy is paramount to a successful and long career as a golf course superintendent. Finding that balance and taking control of my life and career came in a way I would have never expected.

My journey in turf management started in 2004, when my twin boys were just months from being born and my oldest son was about to turn 4. I’d lost my job as a manager at a retail store and was struggling to find work in a small Michigan town. One of the only available jobs was as a laborer at a local golf course making just over $8 per hour. I had no prior experience or clue what was involved, but I applied anyway. I was terrified on the first day!

Superintendent Steve Young (now a longtime friend and mentor) took me under his wing and assured me through hard work that I could get wherever I wanted to in this industry. It didn't take long before I fell in love with the job and decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Once I learned the industry, I became the assistant superintendent and worked 11 great years at the same course.

Through some great advice, I enrolled in the Penn State Turfgrass Management Program. Several years later, I earned a turfgrass science and management degree, studying long into the nights and missing gatherings while simultaneously raising three boys (with my lovely wife and biggest supporter) and coaching youth sports.

After years of growing frustration over not getting to take the reins from a superintendent nearing retirement, I decided to transition into selling turf equipment with a John Deere dealer. At the time, I thought it was the toughest career decision of my life. I had grown close with the crew and fell in love with the course. I left behind a career that was becoming very easy for me.

I always dreamed of working and living in the Southeast but had no experience as a warm-season turf manager. Plus, Penn State wasn't exactly focused on such teachings. I eventually found myself in a phone interview with Jeff Kent at Colleton River Club in Bluffton, South Carolina, working out the details of an internship. My dream opportunity, which involved returning to daily turfgrass maintenance and work in the Southeast, was staring me in the face. The position offered an opportunity to leave my frozen northern Michigan hometown, start over in turf management with warm-season grass and move to one of the most beautiful places in the country.

Did relocating to the South Carolina Lowcountry seem intimidating? You bet! My oldest son had just graduated high school, my twins were about to enter high school and we were important people in our little part of the world. I sat on several youth sports boards of directors and coached teams. Everyone knew us and our families, and friends were close by. Everything we ever knew resided in northern Michigan.

As terrifying as it seemed, I knew this was my chance to change my life and give my family the life they deserved. But there was one caveat: I needed to leave my family in Michigan, head to South Carolina for the internship and make sure I was cut out for turf management in the Southeast. It was eight long months away from my family, friends and everything I’d ever known. I was living with young South African H2B workers in an unfamiliar place.

The decision paid dividends. I was offered — and accepted — a position as an assistant superintendent on the Nicklaus Course at Colleton River Club. Now came time for the real change, moving my family to somewhere unfamiliar, enrolling our boys in a new, bigger and more diverse school, and rebuilding our lives away from our comfort zones.

We rallied as a family. We had each other's backs, stayed positive and started to settle into our new lives. Everything eventually fell into place. The kids were doing great in school, our oldest son began working on the Dye Course at Colleton River Club, and my wife was enjoying a great job.

Yet the stresses and challenges of life and golf course maintenance started impacting me in a negative way. I found myself drinking every day, often excessively, overindulging in the delicious southern fare and smoking to help cope with stress.

Work was great, but I wanted more. I knew I was ready to run a course and was itching for my opportunity. I found myself one day staring in the mirror frustrated, overweight and out of breath from smoking. I was ashamed by what I saw. I knew this wasn't the man I wanted to be. I decided enough was enough; it was time to change.

Changing was a difficult, slow process that I could have never done without my wife and family supporting me along the way. That same week I joined the local gym, stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, started a major diet, and refocused my life and mental approach on positivity. I literally removed any negativity I could from my life. I quickly realized that to be the best person and achieve my life goals I needed to become someone most people are too afraid to be.

Randomly, one day, I saw a Spartan Race finisher shirt and, out of curiosity, Googled what this Spartan Race thing was all about. I learned they were obstacle races all over the world, through mud, water and crazy terrain. The website described them as the most challenging thing most people have ever done. I was drawn to it instantly. Testing your mind, body and spirit aligned perfectly with my new path. If I can do this, I thought, I can do anything. So, I signed up for a Spartan Sprint.

To prepare for the 5K "sprint," I needed to start running, something I had avoided like the plague. In the beginning, I would set out on a one-mile run. I could barely run a hundred yards without walking, gasping for air and pouring sweat. It seemed like a 5K would never be possible. Every day after work, I ran and worked out for hours regardless of how tired I was or how much I didn't want to do it. I pushed through the pain and self-doubt.

I slowly began to improve, running farther and faster each week. By that first 5K Spartan race, I had drastically improved but was terrified. When I crossed the finish line that cold morning in North Carolina, covered in mud, sweat and blood, this overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and pride consumed me. It consumed me again as I completed a Spartan Super 10K race the following month. It didn't take me long to run Spartan Beast 21K in the swamps of central Florida.

Every race was harder than the previous one, testing me to my very core. The sense of pride and accomplishment increased as well. Every time I crossed a finish line, my confidence grew, both in racing and life. Training every day for hours had changed me physically. I lost nearly 100 pounds. I was lean and muscular, exactly what I always dreamed I could be.

Focusing on a positive lifestyle, staying dedicated every day, taking on every obstacle Spartan put in front of me, and pushing through the pain and discomfort that comes with every race, has mentally prepared me for anything in life. I attribute all these experiences to my professional accomplishments and personal growth. During this lifestyle change, I was blessed with the opportunity to become the superintendent of the Nicklaus Course at Colleton River Club.

I have become a better leader, husband, father and person. I can confidently say the lifestyle changes and the focus on positivity and running have opened many doors for me. It has prepared me to face any challenge off or on the course without fear. It has given me the strength to push through the adversity I’ve encountered — and will continue to encounter — as a superintendent. The combination of love and support from my wife and family and the invaluable teachings from a mentor like Jeff has allowed me to completely change my life. I feel prepared to not only survive, but to thrive in this demanding industry.

The way I see it, the only limit you have is the one you put on yourself. For a guy who never cared for running (or was too afraid of the challenge), I’ve conquered that fear and turned it into positive motivation.

Since running that first 5K only two years ago, I have completed more than 50 Spartan Races, averaging top 15 or better in the elite age group division. I won an open-heat 5K race; took third place in the Savannah (Georgia) Bridge Run; placed in the top 40 at a Rock and Roll Running Series Marathon. With an entire season of Spartan Races on my 2023 schedule, who knows what else might happen?

I couldn't have accomplished what I have to this point without an amazing support system behind me. I can't give enough thanks to the people who have my back every day for all they have and continue to do for me personally and professionally. But I’ll be honest. I was the only person who could make the decision to change and take control of my life by facing every day and every challenge with an open mind focused on positivity and success.

I’ve had to bleed, cry, sweat, crawl and run through a lot to get where I am today and where I’m headed in the future. I know the changes I’ve made and continue to make. I also know the lessons I learn from failing and trying again and again will help guide me wherever I desire. This golf course maintenance industry can be brutal. It can get the best of you — but only if you allow it to.

Aaron D. Fish is the Nicklaus Course superintendent at Colleton River Club in Bluffton, South Carolina. This is his first Golf Course Industry contribution.

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Steve Young Jeff Kent