Kelly Tilghman on interviewing Tiger Woods, caddying for Arnold Palmer, and why the Golf Channel is like Tim Tebow

Kelly Tilghman on interviewing Tiger Woods, caddying for Arnold Palmer, and why the Golf Channel is like Tim Tebow

Kelly Tilghman began working at the Golf Channel when the network first launched in 1995.
Stan Badz / Getty Images

Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman doesn’t mind asking the tough questions, as evidenced by her controversial recent interview with PGA Tour player Matt Every about Every’s 2010 marijuana arrest and subsequent PGA Tour suspension.

Tilghman, 42, has been with Golf Channel since it launched in January 1995. She started in the video library, and soon she was on the air doing telecasts from the network’s Orlando studio and from tournament sites. In 2007 she became the PGA Tour’s first full-time female play-by-play announcer.

Among all of the TV announcers who cover golf, Tilghman has forged perhaps the closest relationship with Tiger Woods, whom she has interviewed several times. Their rapport is so close that Woods has had Tilghman provide play-by-play voice-overs for some of his EA Sports video games.

Are you the only Golf Channel announcer who’s been there since the beginning?
No, no. Rich Lerner, Kraig Kann, until he left last summer, Brian Hammons, we’re all originals. So is Mike Ritz. And there are a few more off the air.

How have things changed at Golf Channel since the beginning?
Just in the last few years, there’ve been massive changes with Comcast and NBC taking over. When I started, we were in maybe 100,000 homes. Now we’re in almost 120 million worldwide. The experience over the years has been tremendous both for me and Golf Channel. When we first launched, we had a whole lot of doubters, and a lot of people thought of us as the little engine that could. Nobody thought we’d break through to a level this big. I’ve been blessed to witness basically the entire ride.

What has driven the huge growth of Golf Channel?
I can’t speak for the founder, Joe Gibbs, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Tiger Woods has a lot to do with it. His success has taken everybody in the golf world to the next level.

What’s been the most satisfying thing for you at Golf Channel?
To have been part of something that reached monumental heights. I’m a huge fan of the underdog in sports. I love what Tim Tebow did this year. People told him he couldn’t make it, and he did make it. Golf Channel is another fairy-tale story, and now we’re the model for lots of other single-sport channels.

Is Golf Channel more about journalism or entertainment?
Our news show has great journalistic integrity. Now we have opportunities working with NBC to punch through to the national level. If NBC is tapping on the shoulders of our on-air talent to use them for NBC’s own programming, that shows how we’re viewed in the industry. So yes, journalistically, we’re sound. But we know that we provide entertainment. We’re not always digging up stories. We try to have fun too.

How is it being a woman covering a sport dominated by men?
One of the biggest challenges of my job is finding a ladies room that’s close by. Okay, seriously, I grew up with four brothers, and my father always was and still is my best friend. So I’ve always had a large male influence in my life. Hanging around with the guys is nothing new. For me, it just feels normal.

Is it true that you were a good football player as a little girl?
It’s true. I played every sport: soccer, tee-ball, golf, tennis, even Pop Warner football. When I was 9 or 10, after a few years on the football team, my father pulled me aside and said, “It’s been fun, Kelly, but the boys are getting much bigger than you. Maybe it’s time to choose something else.”

Who is most responsible for your success?
Aside from Tiger, right? It’s been a combination of people. My dad pushed me into trying TV. Also, there was a man at a local TV station, WPTV in West Palm Beach, who gave me a six-week internship, totally unpaid. I was 25 and just starting out. They didn’t need me, but he gave me a chance as long as I’d work for free. After two weeks, he was so happy with my work that he offered to pay me $5 an hour for the next month. While at WPTV, I made this incredibly bad demo tape of myself. Then I met Scott Van Pelt, who was working at Golf Channel, and I gave Scott the tape. Two days later, I got a call. Golf Channel wanted to hire me to work in the videotape library with some possible on-air work down the road. Mike Whalen hired me. I’ll never forget. That was my big break.

How much do you travel, and what’s a typical day on the road like for you?
I’m good for about 20 to 25 weeks a year on the road. In the morning, I work out; I’m religious on that front. The rest of the day, I work hard on the telecast, including a lot of preparation. At night, I like a great dinner with friend. Laughter has to be a part of the day. Before bed, I work hard to prepare for the next day’s telecast. I also try to engage in the places we visit. In a place with lots to offer, like in Hawaii, I’ll work a surf into the day. In Scottsdale, I work a hike into the day. I love the outdoors.

Do you aspire to work for one of the major networks?
I think I’m at a network now. Remember, we’re now part of the NBC fabric. Never in a million years did I think we’d get this big and be part of a major network. Just this week, I found out that I’ll do Olympic coverage next summer. It’s an absolute thrill, a dream come true, to be getting the chance to do all this for NBC.

What have been your most memorable interviews?
I get the biggest thrill interviewing the likes of Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam. They’re the greatest at what they’ve done. Starting in the 1990s, I began to get to know Tiger through the interview process. He’s been very kind to us. We’ve had some fun moments, where I’d get him to admit things, like how he makes his own bed in hotel rooms, or he’d reveal the disciplinarian side of his father.

You were one of the first people to interview Tiger after his car crash and the revelation of his infidelities. What was that interview like?
Certainly, there have been difficult moments in talking with Tiger. These are growing experiences for everyone. He has been a gift to us in so many ways. I have really embraced the fact that I’ve been able to work alongside him for 15 years. I’ve enjoyed every minute of time interviewing him.

Kelly Tilghman, Arnold PalmerIs there a singular highlight of your career?
One of the great highlights was caddying for Arnold [Palmer] three years in a row in the Par Three Contest at the Masters, and he was paired with Jack [Nicklaus] and Gary [Player].

Was Palmer a good tipper?
He never had to tip me. He paved the way for my career by starting Golf Channel.

Will Tiger reach Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories?
Tiger still has plenty of time. I like the way his game is trending. If Tiger’s body can hold out, I genuinely believe he could pick off this year’s Masters. I believe he could break the record. He could win the next three Masters. It’s just the putter that needs to come back.

In 2008, you made a comment on air that young players on Tour should “lynch Tiger Woods in a back alley.” The comment caused an uproar, and you were suspended by Golf Channel for two weeks. Tiger said he believed that you had meant no harm with the comment. Looking back, how do you feel about the incident?
It was very unfortunate. I think greatest lesson I learned was that intent doesn’t always equal outcome. I’m very grateful for the second chance that the public gave me.

Did you think you’d get a second chance?
It was a difficult time. I learned so much. I’m just grateful that I’m still able to do the job that I do. I feel much wiser for the process.

Who wins more majors over the next decade, Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods?
If Rory can live up to the hype, he could easily pick off more than Tiger. That said, we still have a lot to learn about Rory McIlroy. If Tiger can pick off five, that’s tall billing for Rory. But if Rory is as good as everybody says, there’s a very good chance he could win more than five in next 10 years.

Aside from McIlroy and Woods, will anybody else win more than two majors over the next decade?
I look to a Dustin Johnson. If he can turn the trick once, it would open the floodgate. Bud Cauley, a rookie, seems to be the real deal. I do believe there are a few players on the Tour, who if they can find some momentum and swagger, they can find the groove and win big. There is a new generation of young players who could develop in next 10 years into something special. We could have Tiger as Jack, Rory as Arnie, and a slew of talented other players could become a Watson or a Trevino. There is a lot of possibility. We’ll have to see what happens.

What’s your perspective on the LPGA?
The women’s game is fascinating. They had all of these young stars who have been budding but haven’t quite been winning enough. But remember, Michelle Wie is still just 22 and she is about to graduate from Stanford, so now she can really focus on golf. We’re going to see Michelle Wie 2.0 kick in soon. Lexi Thompson is a bright young star. If these two youngsters can snap into form, and if Yani can keep going, the ratings could really increase.

When Golf Channel staffers discuss LPGA coverage, what is the general consensus about the tour and where it’s going?
We show no bias. We see what Yani Tseng is doing. She is the Tiger Woods of her tour. She deserves the attention that we give her. We want the women’s events to be treated just like the men’s events. The world should treat the women like it treats the men. We want to do whatever we can to lift the platform for the LPGA. We’ve made big attempts to give the women a bigger stage.

Do your parents watch your telecasts?
Dad is a fan. He’s very supportive. He doesn’t catch every show, but he always watches the ones I get excited about. He always calls and says, “Great job, baby.”
Mom calls every week and wants to know when I’m on so she can DVR. She DVRs everything. My parents are my best friends. They think I’m a bigger celebrity than I really am. That makes me feel special.

What happened to the course your family owned in Myrtle Beach?
They owned it for 22 years. They built it around 1980 and sold it in 2002. My father had to make a business decision that was best for the family. The developers turned part of it into a Home Depot parking lot and there’s a housing development. I guess it’s a sign of the times in Myrtle Beach.

After graduating from Duke, where you played on the golf team, you played mini-tour golf around the world for a few years. What was your highlight as a player?
I played my first big tour event in December of 1994. It was the Australian Open in Adelaide. In the first round, I shot way over par [85 on the par 74 Royal Adelaide]. I had a European tour playing card, but I had no business being on the same stage as players like Liselotte Neumann, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, who was making her professional debut. Nice coincidence, no, that Karrie and I debuted the same week? Well, I shot three-under in the second round to make the cut on the number. I remember Donna Caponi was broadcasting for Australian TV, and she was struggling to pronounce my name. My 71 was the low round of the day for a long time, until Kathryn Marshall came in with a 69. Having the low round, at least for a while, felt so good.

How did you finish the tournament?
I shot 83-75 on the weekend and finished 65th. I cashed a check for $240. That’s Australian dollars.

If you were an announcer broadcasting an event in which Kelly Tilghman the golfer was playing in, how would you have described the player?
I might have said, “This young American golfer certainly seems to be hungry and she has a little talent. But she’s a little too mechanical. Golf might not be her calling. Maybe, just maybe, she should consider a career in broadcasting.”

(Lower photo: Tilghman and Palmer and the 2008 Masters. Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)