According to MSHSAA’s Eligibility Standards, a student-athlete will be ineligible to participate for a school if they were “influenced by a person to attend that school for athletic or activities purposes.” However, that rule does not apply to middle school history and homeroom teachers.
That is where Mt. Vernon’s Ashley Childers, a two-time All-State golfer for the Lady Mt’neers, was first “recruited” to the sport of golf, and her sixth grade homeroom teacher has been reaping the benefits the past four years. That would be Leah Clark, who has taught history at Mt. Vernon Middle School for 22 years. Clark is also the only coach that the Mt. Vernon girls golf program has ever known, and the architect of a mini-dynasty with the Lady Mt’neers having won 10 district titles in the program’s 15 year history.
“When I’m absent from school for golf tournaments, I tell the students where I was, and show them any trophies or plaques we won,” said Clark, who will be retiring from coaching after this season. “I always tell the class, ‘Any girls interested in playing come and see me,’ so that’s how it all started. One day after class Ashley came up and said, ‘I want to play golf.’”
Clark got Childers set-up to take lessons from Leon Faucett, a longtime PGA golf pro and fixture in the Mt. Vernon golf community until his death in May 2012. Childers was hooked immediately, and became a regular at the Mt. Vernon Golf Course and driving range.
“In sixth grade, she’d come out with a friend and we’d be out on the range,” said Clark, describing team practices back then. “These two little girls would go over, and sometimes Ashley would be there by herself and she would hit from the top of the range while we had practice down below. And that’s where it all began.”
Childers has since blossomed into one of the top golfers in the state. The senior led Mt. Vernon to a pair of 4th-place finishes at the MSHSAA Class 1 State Girls Golf Championships as a freshman and sophomore, which included earning All-State honors with a 10th-place finish in 2012. Last year, Childers finished as the state runner-up after firing a two-day 153 at Sedalia Country Club.
Childers is also a champion on the Missouri Golf Association Junior Circuit. In fact, Childers has won back-to-back Missouri Junior Match Play Championships, and also won the 2014 Junior Amateur Championship by one stroke July 6-8 at Paradise Pointe Golf Complex in Smithville. Although Childers played in just two MGA Junior events this year, she still finished in 4th-place in the age 16-18 Player of the Year rankings, which are based on points awarded for various tournaments throughout the season.
Childers also was one of just six girls to represent Missouri in the 2014 Southern States Cup Matches Aug. 4-6 at Dalhousie Golf Club in Cape Girardeau. The three-day tournament pitted the top junior golfers from Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, and featured coed four-ball and foursome matches, as well as singles matches.
Childers will be staying close to home next year after verbally committing to golf at Missouri State for head coach Kevin Kane. It is one less thing for Childers to worry about her senior year. “It’s a great program and a great coach,” she said.
“I’m excited she’s staying close at MSU,” said Clark. “I am alum of SMS, and Kevin’s a great coach, and I think they’ll be a perfect fit.”
Jack Nicklaus has been credited with saying that, “Golf is 80% mental, 10% physical, and 10% luck.” Childers, who now takes a weekly lesson from Rivercut PGA pro Ron Sweet, has a strong mental approach to the game.
“Mentally, I like to stick to a routine,” said Childers. “As mental as golf is, I think you can take a lot of variables out by keeping a routine: take the same amount of practice swings, eat the same thing for breakfast. I listen to the same song before I come to a tournament every single time. I like taking as many variables out as possible.”
Good luck finding out what song that is, though. “I can’t tell you…it’s a secret,” she said when pressed for details.
“She’s very meticulous about everything before a tournament,” said Clark of Childers. “We see this on times when we have to travel, especially to district or Sectional or State, she lays out her clubs. She cleans them to perfection. It’s laid out how she’s going to get ready in the morning, her clothes and everything. She’s kind of a machine. Every score, she can give you a play-by-play of every hole. She could probably do that for her freshman year. That’s just how her mind is. If it’s putting, if it’s chipping, she knows what’s on and what’s off. Ron Sweet’s her pro, and when she goes to him, she says, ‘this is what we need to work on.’ She knows.”
So what makes Ashley Childers such a good golfer? Has she ever played a “perfect” round?
“It’s my ability to hit it from anywhere,” said Childers, when asked what makes her so good. “I’ll get it back in play no matter where I hit it. I have this motto: ‘Anyone can play from the fairways, but it’s the skilled players that can play from everywhere else.’ No matter what, I am always going to try something to get it back in play.
“You can always improve on short game,” she added. “I take a lesson every week. We’re always trying to tweak a little bit to keep me where I need to be. Consistency wise, it goes back to staying in your routine. I look to keep the scoring average low. That’s the big thing. My scoring average right now is about a 71, so I can’t complain about that.”
“Ashley is intrinsically motivated,” said Clark. “It’s not just golf, it’s everything, but golf is her dream right now. She’s always been that way. When I had her in History, she listened and she was intense. Academically speaking, she’s at the top of her class also. There’s nothing that Ashley, if she puts her mind to it, won’t do.”
There are lots of sports to compete in, but Childers was drawn to golf due to the individual nature of the sport. Yes, she is part of a team, but individually, each and every round is a challenge to play her best.
“It’s so individual,” said Childers of the sport. “Every day is an opportunity to play your best. Every shot, every round, every time you pick up a club.” For the record, Childers’ best day was an impressive two-under 70 to win the Bolivar Invitational last year on a windy day at Silo Ridge Country Club in Bolivar.
“Life has kind of revolved around golf,” said Ashley’s mother, Ruth Childers, who does not play golf herself. “We eat, sleep and breathe golf. She loves it, and so every opportunity we play. It’s been enjoyable. It’s been very rewarding. I’m very proud of Ashley, and I’m glad she’s staying close to home, too.”
As tenacious and dominating as Childers is on the course, she is equally humble off it, yet still intimidating in her demeanor.
“She’s a really good kid,” said Clark. “Sometimes, people take her differently like she’s trying to intimidate, but Ashley will tell you what she thinks, exactly what’s on her mind. She just says it, and some people take that wrong. Ashley’s not that way. She is concerned about her teammates. She’s very good with them. She works with the two new freshmen we have this year, and has done a great job teaching them how things are done at Mt. Vernon.”
“She’s a good person,” said Ruth Childers. “She’s very focused and wants to be the best at whatever she does. She gives 110 percent in everything she does.”
With the girls golf season cruising along, and with district tournaments scheduled across the state from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, Childers’ senior season is fast coming to a close. There is one clear goal in mind for last year’s state runner-up.
“It’s the definite goal to win State,” said Childers, who at any given time can tell you how many days it is until the State tournament begins. “It’s my senior year and it’s at Rivercut, so I feel like it’s my home course and they’re coming to my turf. I’ve been practicing really hard and looking forward to it. That’s the only time we see a two-day tournament during our high school season. It’s just a marathon of golf. Just try to survive for 36 holes.”
Childers is definitely not putting any carts before the horse by looking past districts and sectionals to State. Actually, she has already mentally prepared herself for both the district and sectional tournaments. The district tournament will be hosted by Purdy on Sept. 29 at Cassville Golf Club, while the sectional tournament will be played at Marshfield Country Club.
“I had never played Cassville before a couple weeks ago,” said Childers, who got a scouting round in in August. “I did go out and watch boys sectional there this past spring, so I at least have a little knowledge of the course. I do find it very strange that we’re having it on a course that no one will be very familiar with. Sectionals are at Marshfield, which Marshfield is practically our second home. We’ll play there three times this year. And then State is at Rivercut.”
The Lady Mt’neers will be looking to reach the podium again this season after failing to bring a plaque home to Lawrence County last year.
“Last year, we finished two stokes out of fourth place, so that was rough,” said Childers, who today can probably can tell you in great detail of at least three strokes she could have shaved off her score last October. “We did graduate two seniors, so it will be very tough to do that again or to get a top four. But that would be a great way to end the season. I’m going to try to do everything on my end to carry strokes and see what happens.”
With all the competitive golf she plays, one would think that Childers would love to just go out and play a friendly stress-free round. One would be gravely mistaken, though.
“I never play golf for fun,” said Childers. “It’s always competitive. Like I said, every day is the opportunity to play your best. Even when I’m practicing, I’m practicing hard.”
What if Ashley Childers would have had a different home room teacher in sixth grade? Who knows, but with Leah Clark retiring from coaching after this season, colleges may want to give her a ring. After all, she has already proven that she is a good recruiter.