By REX HOGGARD
Gator Hole Golf Course, a hectic, 18-hole, public-access layout once fixed aside the U.S. Highway 17 corridor in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., was where Kelly Tilghman became consumed by golf.
Her family owned the facility for 22 years, and Tilghman, whose father, Phil, is a former North Myrtle Beach mayor, spent much of her childhood working at the course, picking up range golf balls or pulling a shift behind the counter. When she wasn’t on the clock, she was on the course honing a swing that would land her a spot on the Duke women’s golf team and a brief professional career.
Gator Hole has since succumbed to the urban sprawl of the Grand Strand. About 10 years ago, the layout was paved over and converted into Gator Hole Plaza, home to a Wal-Mart, T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant, Home Depot and other retail outlets.
Tilghman’s television career – once a meteoric ascent that covered the landscape between Golf Channel’s video library to her historic role as the game’s first full-time female play-by-play commentator on the PGA Tour – may be bound for a similar fate. Her controversial comment during the network’s broadcast of the Mercedes-Benz Championship has landed her at the epicenter of a public storm.
Tilghman’s two-week suspension without pay for saying that young players who wanted to challenge Tiger Woods should “lynch him in a back alley” is the first major misstep in a television career that began in 1996.
After graduating from Duke in 1991 with a degree in political science and history, Tilghman tested the play-for-pay waters on secondary circuits from Australia to Europe, with little success.
Tilghman's former coach and teammates at Duke defend her
In 1996, Tilghman retired from competitive golf and accepted a two-year internship at WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla. Six weeks into that internship, she sent a demo tape to Michael Whelan, then an executive at the startup Golf Channel.
“The demo was raw, but I saw some eagerness to learn,” said Whelan, the channel’s original vice president and executive producer of production. “She knew golf, and she could speak the game.”
Tilghman was hired to work in the channel’s video library, labeling tapes and cataloging shows. But she quickly established herself on the other side of the camera, initially serving as an on-course reporter for live tournaments before assuming a co-anchor role on “Golf Central” and the “Sprint Post Game.”
In 2007, the first season in a 15-year deal that established Golf Channel as the PGA Tour’s primary television partner, Tilghman teamed with Nick Faldo to lead the channel’s live broadcasts. Tilghman, 38, who was replaced in the 18th-hole tower at the Sony Open by Rich Lerner, had become one of the network’s most recognizable faces.
“It was a horrible analogy, and she will be kicking herself for a long, long time,” Whelan said. “One of the reasons I hired her was her integrity. This was just a horrible mistake, but we live in a society that you have so many people pointing fingers at you, and sometimes it’s not enough to say you’re sorry.”