Giving game a new look

Kelly Tilghman is first woman to anchor a golf telecast.

Published January 18, 2007

To her left sat one of the most successful golfers of his generation, behind her the beautiful, blue Pacific Ocean. Kelly Tilghman looked remarkably comfortable in her new role as golf's first female play-by-play announcer during Golf Channel's coverage of two PGA Tour events in Hawaii.

But she knows there is a long way to go.

As the first woman to anchor a network golf broadcast, she knows there will be plenty of questions along the way. And while her gender might not be the issue it once was in sports broadcasting, she realizes she is a pioneer of sorts.

"You can't help but feel like one, that's for sure," said Tilghman, 37, during a recent telephone interview. "But I'm really trying not to look at it that way. I'm trying to look at it more as this is a new opportunity for me. It's something I want to focus and do well on."

So far, so good for Tilghman, who deftly set up her witty color analyst, six-time majors winner Nick Faldo, during her first two weeks, the latest in a long list of jobs she has held at the 24-hour cable network.

A short-lived golf career

Tilghman played college golf at Duke, where her focus was prelaw, political science and history and considered attending law school. But after graduating in 1991, she moved to Arizona, where she became a playing and teaching professional and pursued a competitive career in the sport.

In the early 1990s, she played on several professional tours, including in Europe, Asia and Australia.

It soon became apparent that making a living at golf was going to be an immense challenge.

"I was competing against Annika (Sorenstam) and Karrie (Webb) and Laura Davies when they were just starting to become the players they are today," she said. "The competition was extremely tough. I went to Q-School (twice) and I came across a woman on the tee box for a practice round. She had tendinitis in both elbows, a knee brace, bandages on her fingers.

"I asked her how many times she had been to Q-School and she said it was her 10th try. And I didn't want to be that person. I didn't want to browbeat myself to that extent. I knew that I had other interests, and I felt that was the time to pursue. So in '96, I stopped playing competitively."

Starting at the bottom

Golf Channel, located in Orlando, was met with skepticism when it debuted in 1995, mostly as a pay channel with limited distribution. After an internship at a West Palm Beach TV station, Tilghman joined the fledgling channel in its video library.

"It was a relief," she said. "When you're a golfer, you're just looking forward to hitting the next ball on the range. I loved the game, but was not in love with being on the tour. So it was really awesome to feel like I had a plan."

Tilghman, originally from Myrtle Beach, S.C., did a little bit of everything, such as reporting at tournaments and hosting various instruction, interview, pregame and postgame shows.

But she had never handled play-by-play before being tapped for her current role after Golf Channel last year signed a 15-year contract to televise the first two rounds of every PGA Tour event, with full-tournament coverage of the first three events.

"We just thought that Kelly had all the experiences that would lead her to be successful in an endeavor like this, between her instructional programming that she hosted, her conversational shows like the Grey Goose 19th Hole," said Tony Tortorici, vice president of production. "She did do a little stint on tournaments many years ago and was a player in her early days, but she just has all the tools to do it and we just thought it would be a really good pairing with Nick."

Tilghman said she expects to cover as many as 25 tournaments, doing play-by-play as well as setting up Faldo and on-course reporters.

"I think I have an understanding of the various situations players are in, but I certainly can't tell you what they're thinking," she said. "Golfers don't want you to tell them what they're thinking. I will describe the situation to the best of my ability. And it will help me along the way if I can ask the right questions of the analysts, to be a good setup person."