At a young age Ashlyn Mehlhaff was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory joint disease that causes pain, swelling and stiffness. In addition to medical treatments, one recommended approach for dealing with the symptoms was to maintain an active lifestyle, so Mehlhaff’s parents introduced her to ballet, to baseball and eventually golf.
Sports, she found, helped build her muscles and being active helped lubricate stiff joints. And, she discovered, taking part allowed her to be with other kids instead of dealing with her issues on the sidelines.
“It made me push myself even more,” she says now. “Whether it was swinging a baseball bat or a golf club, it helped. Swinging a golf club would help keep my hips loose.”
And it left her with an awareness that the benefits of sports can go beyond the obvious matter of winning or losing. It’s a belief that she puts front and center in her new role as executive director of the First Tee of South Central Wisconsin, the local chapter of the national organization whose mission is to teach young people not just how to play golf, though that’s a big part of it, but also to teach life skills that go well beyond the game.
Mehlhaff, 33, came to the First Tee with considerable experience working with non-profits. A native of New Orleans, she worked first with the United Way of Greater New Orleans, later with the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Knoxville, Tenn., and then back to the United Way of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania. She moved to Madison five years ago with her husband, former University of Wisconsin football player Taylor Mehlhaff, who played professionally as a placekicker with the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings before joining the staff of now Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst. In Madison, she worked for the Olbrich Botanical Society, the Vilas Zoological Society and the Clean Lakes Alliance before being recruited for the First Tee position, a job she already sees as the right one for the long term.
“It was just a great fit for me,” she said. “It’s kids and it’s sports – two things you can’t say no to.”
Mehlhaff was aware of the First Tee program, even if she never envisioned being involved at this level. While in college at the University of New Orleans, she was a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints — the Saintsations, as they are known — and took part with her fellow cheerleaders in several charity events benefitting that city’s First Tee program. Just a month into her new position in Madison, Mehlhaff said she is still learning new things about the program every day — “I’m still, the expression they use is, ‘drinking from a fire hose,’ ” she admitted — but has fully embraced the South Central chapter’s dual mission.
While some First Tee chapters focus mostly on the “green grass” side of golf, the Madison program emphasizes academic instruction in math and literacy for participants along with teaching the organization’s nine core values — honesty, integrity, sportsmanship and more. There is instruction on driving, chipping and putting, of course, but Mehlhaff notes program manager Brad Munn begins those lessons by first teaching his young students how to properly shake hands.
The goal, she said, is “to continue to develop better golfers and better people. What we say is the priority is life skills … and through that you become better golfers.”
The academic instruction is provided at four learning centers, three in Madison at Vitense Golf Center, Cherokee Country Club and Nine Springs Golf Course and one in Reedsburg. Participants come for an hour of after-school work on academic improvements, using a software curriculum program to measure their skills levels in math and reading and record progress. The emphasis on academics was driven by the awareness of a serious academic achievement gap that might seem counterintuitive in a city known for government and university learning.
“It surprised me when I first moved here,” Mehlhaff said. “We know that there’s a big need and there’s a big need in Madison. We do make sure that they’re getting both instructions. We just want them to have the opportunity to better themselves, and golf is a way to do it.
“A lot of these are kids that haven’t held a golf club before,” she said, while other participants are much more interested in the competitive part of the game.
“We not only work on the green grass side, we also work on the achievement side. We have multiple ways to have an impact.”
Getting adjusted to life in Madison took some time, Mehlhaff said. Growing up in New Orleans she knew the four seasons as “hot, hot, hot and humid.
“I never thought I would be out on Halloween with snow on the ground.”
But, she said, “I’m finding myself more and more loving Madison. It finally became home to me. As long as Coach Chryst and the Badgers keep winning we’ll be here for a while.”
While she enjoys playing golf, Mehlhaff admitted that she did not play a round this year — but for good reason. She had a second daughter in January, and between caring for a newborn and a 3-year-old daughter — along with work, of course — her time was pretty much occupied. But her older daughter already has a set of clubs and has gotten instruction from “Coach Brad” and Mehlhaff expects to find time to play next season.
Though perhaps not in the fall when her husband's coaching is a seven-day job.
“You’re single-momming it all fall long,” she said of the life of a coach’s wife. “Trust me, when the season’s over he’ll get his turn.”