Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

Gifted golfer Ashley Sloup, a student at South Brunswick High School, has the state championships – and the LPGA tour – in her sights.

In the ongoing “nature vs. nurture” debate, there is one thing both sides can agree on. If you are born with the golf gene and you start swinging a club at age four, you will probably have a bright golfing career ahead of you.

That is Ashley Sloup’s story. She has the golf gene and has always had the supportive environment to become great at the game. Her father was a teaching golf pro, and her grandparents are avid golfers in St. James.

“I grew up with golf,” Ashley says. “When I was four, we lived in Wisconsin, and my dad often took me to the country club where he was the pro. He taught me how to swing a club and let me ride in the cart.”

By the time she was six, Ashley thought it was great fun to hit balls out of the woods or into a pond on the Members Course at St. James. Now, at age 17 with a 0.5 handicap index and a fiercely competitive nature, she doesn’t find hitting out of the woods or into ponds all that funny anymore.

When she was seven, her grandparents, Bill and Margot Sloup, had Ashley out on the course, where she was allowed to tee up her ball wherever their drive landed and play the rest of the hole from there. She liked to have a low score, so when her grandparents gave her a gimme, instead of making her putt it out, she didn’t count it as a stroke. When she got old enough to play the full hole and had to count every stroke (including gimmes), she stopped keeping score. According to her grandmother, “She only wanted pars and birdies, and if she didn’t get those, she wasn’t going to keep score.” That must have been an early clue to her competitiveness.

Ashley has been an active participant in The First Tee of Brunswick County since its inception in 2003.

“I was one of the founding members,” she recalls with a nostalgic smile.

In 2006 she was chosen to participate in The First Tee “Nick Bradley experience,” a year-long junior golf clinic held every other Saturday at Nick Bradley’s Golf School at Barefoot Landing in Myrtle Beach. The purpose of this intense instruction was to see if a year with Bradley would produce some excellent golfers in the future.

Ashley entered her first tournament when she was in fifth grade — and won it. It was at the South Harbor par 3 course on Oak Island.

Her first major win was the two-day Hurricane Junior Golf Tournament (15 to 18 age division), last June at the Grande Dunes Resort Course in Myrtle Beach, where she posted a score of 147, just three over par.

When Ashley joined the First Tee in 2003, Al Arrigoni was the executive director, and she credits him with having made the biggest impact on her life, other than her family. So she was thrilled when he agreed to be her caddy at the prestigious Nature Valley First Tee Open in Pebble Beach in September 2013. This tournament is by invitation only and is based not only on outstanding golf, but also on service to the community, leadership and sportsmanship.

“From the first time I met Ashley, I knew she was not only driven and competitive, but she also utilizes the life skills she has learned from First Tee,” says Arrigoni. “So when she set the goal to apply for that tournament, which meant working hard not only on her golf game, but also finding the time to give back to her community, I knew she would work toward achieving that goal. It is special for me to have shared this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with her.”

By her own admission, Ashley is obsessively goal driven. She practices her swing, drive, short game and putts for two to three hours every day, but it could run longer if she has not yet achieved her goals for that particular session. She has a very specific routine that she follows for each practice, and she won’t quit until she has accomplished that session’s goals.

Martin Sludds, coach at Thistle Golf Club in Sunset Beach, has been Ashley’s coach since she attended the Bradley school.

“I listen to everybody, but I always do what he says,” Ashley says of Sludds.

Sludds is obviously a fan of Ashley the golfer and Ashley the person.

“She is a natural athlete,” he says, “having excelled at soccer, basketball and cross country. She did not get serious with her golf until August 2011. Even then she wanted to continue with her other sporting activities, but due to time restraints she was forced to make serious choices.”

Sludds went on to say that Ashley’s grandparents “are the unsung heroes who have backed her to the hilt with love and support, shepherding her to tournaments all over. Her father played golf to a good standard and keeps her well-grounded.”

Ashley’s goal for this year is to lead her South Brunswick High School team to the state championships.

“My team is a big part of my life,” she says, “and my number one goal now is for our team to do well in our school tournaments and place in the top three in the state championships.”

If you watch the team play and you wonder which one is Ashley, look for the kid in wild socks. It seems she saw a golfer on TV with neon socks and that got her started on a fad that just didn’t quit. She insists it has nothing to do with George H.W. Bush.

“I wore them before he did,” she says.

Her grandfather has been instrumental in adding to her collection, which is now up to 22 pairs, including the recent additions from Alaska of bears and moose. But her favorites remain the American flag and ducks. However, these socks can only
be worn if deserved. She never wears them on the first day of a tournament and only on the second day if she played well on the first.

Ashley is looking forward to going to Winthrop University, a Division One school in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on a golf scholarship next fall. She plans to major in sports management with a minor in communications. Her long-range goal is to play on tour. And after her interview with Kelly Tilghman and Charlie Rymer on the Golf Channel, her long-long-range goal is to be a broadcaster for the Golf Channel. Could it be that she will be ready to do that right about the same time Kelly is ready to retire? Ashley is no doubt hoping so.

Ashley says there are two reasons she loves golf so much. The first one is philosophical and the second, emotional.

“I think of golf as an analogy to life,” she says. “They both demand perseverance; you need to have goals; you make friends; and you never have the same situation to deal with.”

And then, with a smile, she adds, “Golf really clicks with me. That’s the happiest I am, when I’m on the golf course.”