When Kelly Tilghman was 12 years old, she was a starting quarterback and the only girl in her tackle football league. As a high school junior she was a standout point guard who led the North Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High women's basketball team to a state championship.
"I guess I've always been good at passing off," she says.
Tilghman, 37, has traded athletic fields for Golf Channel's 18th-hole tower, but her role has scarcely changed.
"Once we signed Nick Faldo as a color analyst, it was, O.K., now we need someone to throw him the ball," says Don McGuire, Golf Channel's senior vice president of programming. "Kelly gets that."
It's true that Faldo's vermouth-dry wit and insight dominate Golf Channel telecasts, but it is Tilghman who has been the center of attention, at least with the media. The scrutiny is not a surprise given that Tilghman is the first woman to do play-by-play full time for a major men's sport on a national level. She's also a metaphor for Golf Channel as it embarks on Tour coverage: inexperienced, eager, a bit of a gamble.
Thus far Tilghman has been a polarizing presence. In a decade of working her way up the ladder at Golf Channel she has been a stalwart on virtually every show of note and brings to the tower a reporter's eye for detail, a deep love of ShotLink stats and an encyclopedic amount of background on even the most random Tour player.
"Kelly will never not be prepared for a telecast," says Tony Tortorici, Golf Channel's vice president of production. "She is tenacious about research."
Of course, good play-by-play is more than simply dispensing information. Tilghman also serves as a traffic cop, maintaining a running dialogue with a bevy of announcers. This comes less naturally, and the criticism has been intense in some quarters.
In March golfobserver.com ran a picture of Tilghman superimposed with an Ebertesque thumbs-down. This was part of a gossipy item inspired by Tilghman's not being in the tower for the CA Championship: "Has the honeymoon ended for Kelly Tilghman as she was mysteriously not present in today's telecast?"
According to Tilghman and various Golf Channel executives, the week off had been scheduled since the beginning of the year. "Has it come to the point where we need to put a press release out saying I'm taking a week off?" she says. "Obviously, that would sound defensive. I'm aware to some degree of what's being said, but I can't get bogged down in it. I'm focused on trying to get better with every telecast. It's an art form, and the only real way to learn is by doing it."
She also studies tape and leans on a small circle of trusted advisers, which includes Mike Tirico, former play-by-play man for ABC golf. Tilghman is so open to counsel because, as she points out, she is still relatively new to the profession.
Her dream growing up was to play professional golf, not narrate it. She competed on the boys' team in high school and was good enough to receive a scholarship to Duke, where her career stalled a bit.
"There were distractions," she says. "I fell in love. . . ." Her voice trails off dreamily.
Tilghman turned pro after college and spent years in the minor leagues in Asia and Europe while twice coming up short at LPGA Q school. Burned out, she took a few months off from the game in 1996. On the day she decided to hit balls again she wound up sharing the range with a man who happened to be friends with an executive at a West Palm Beach TV station. Noting her telegenic looks and strong, distinctive voice, the mystery gent whose name Tilghman no longer recalls put her in touch with his friend.
Tilghman's Palm Beach internship begat a demo tape, which after another chance encounter she slipped to Scott Van Pelt, then an announcer with Golf Channel. (He has since moved to ESPN.) Tilghman was hired to work in the video library.
"It used to be four shelves," she says. "Now it's a whole wing of the building, plus off-site storage."
She's too discreet to say it, but her importance to Golf Channel has increased in roughly the same proportion.
"It's been quite a ride," Tilghman allows.
The only question is how much bumpier it will get. Faldo has a piece of advice regarding his partner: "Don't ever, ever underestimate Kelly Tilghman."