Kelly Green

Kelly Green

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Kelly Tilghman's hiatus put rumors into overdrive.
Fred Vuich/SI

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.”