Kelly Tilghman signed off after 22 years in a variety of roles at Golf Channel, including having made history as the first woman to serve as lead announcer on a PGA Tour telecast. Fighting back tears, Tilghman spoke to Golfweek the morning after Golf Channel threw a going away party in her hometown of Orlando. She discussed her decision, her history with the channel and shared thoughts on Tiger Woods’ comeback.
Golfweek: Your emotions upon ending 22 years as one of Golf Channel’s key personalities?
Tilghman: Happy-sad, it’s emotional. I’m the kind of person who always tries to look forward. I try not to look back unless there’s something I can learn from it. And, you know, this process for me was very peaceful. When I was young, I played golf, and I was trained to believe that I was supposed to be a professional golfer. And, you know, I went through all the motions: playing college golf, playing mini tour golf, and then playing on professional tours overseas.
And, I just came to the realization one day that I had achieved what I thought was my potential in the game, and it was a very hard decision because, throughout my entire childhood I only thought I was going to grow up to be one thing: a professional golfer. So, I made that decision one day to walk away from that, not having a clue what was next to me.
But, I trusted that I was gonna land on my feet, my head was on a swivel, and I could figure it out. And, lo and behold, look what happened: this remarkable run at the Golf Channel.
Golfweek: Why now?
Tilghman: I’ve always been one to believe that to be able to be the best at what you can be, you have to have everything you have invested in it, and I’ve had so many life changes the last five or six years that I felt there were some things that were pulling me away from being the best that I could be, and it was all good things, just positive life changes. And, you know, for me, this was a slow kind of a drip-drip process to move away from Golf Channel. As you’ve probably noticed over the last few years, there’s kind of a weaning process going on. I can’t speak for [Golf Channel] management, I don’t know where they were in the process of “in the know”, so to speak, but I knew what I was moving toward. And that was, I wanted it to be a warm and friendly, just memorable exit with this family that I love so much.
Golfweek: And has saying goodbye from Golf Channel been what you’d hoped?
Tilghman: I knew before they did that I was gonna start this process, but when they found out from me, they could not have been more professional, more welcoming in the sense of “How can I help you through this? What can I do for you?” And, suffice it to say, they did everything they could to make sure that I knew this was the right decision. They didn’t want me to second-guess or regret it down the road. So, we worked together to create a path of certainty. And, here we are today.
Golfweek: Who gave you your start at the channel?
Tilghman: I was an intern at an NBC affiliate in Palm Beach, just getting coffee and chatting with reporters, and I met Scott Van Pelt at a charity golf day. And he told me he worked for this thing called the Golf Channel, and I’m like, “There’s a TV station that covers golf? OK.”
So, he took my tape and handed it to a guy named Paul Farnsworth who handed it to a guy named Mike Whelan, and that’s where we ended up. Mike Whelan was the Molly Solomon (Golf Channel Executive Producer) of today, and he saw something in me that really no one else did, according to him. That’s kind of what he said to me. He put a contract in front of my face one day when he knew he was about to part ways with the company. Before anyone else did, he knew he was leaving. I didn’t know at the time, and he put the contract in front of me and he said, “Just sign it. This is a two-year deal. And, you know, no one really knows who you are, but I think you have something and I want you to go out there and prove it.” And then he left and I had two years to get it done. And, how lucky was I that it worked out the way it did?
Golfweek: What was the moment in your various roles with Golf Channel that puts a smile on your face? If there is one?
Tilghman: It’s so easy to answer that one if you wanna talk about just highlights, literal highlights of my career. Caddying for Arnold Palmer, the Par-3 contest, the Masters tournament not once but three times. There are a million reasons why I chose Bay Hill as the place to say goodbye, or at least “see you around”. But it was because it was here in the announce booth every year, as I sat up there with Arnold Palmer during the telecast that he would ask me back to come on the bag. And, I mean, I’m just so lucky to have those opportunities, and to have the trust and support of Arnold Palmer was a real gift for me in the game.
Golfweek: Are you going to continue to try to work in broadcasting, in golf?
Tilghman: I can’t imagine a scenario where I would never be on television again. That’s impossible for me to imagine right now. It’s who I am. It’s what I know. You know, it’s still what I love to do, but I just need some time to take a step back and really appreciate all the things that I’ve done and kind of assess going forward what’s next. You know, Tiger Woods once said to me at a crucial moment in his career … an important moment in his career, not crucial, “When something ends, something new begins.” And, that’s how I’m looking at this moment. There will be something next. And, I can’t wait to find out what it is.
Golfweek: You’ve gotten to know Tiger better than most in the media world and have covered nearly all of his career, what are you sensing about his game having watched him for so long?
Tilghman: My general sense of where he is right now, without having that conversation with him, is that I see a warmth coming from him and a level of humility that, privately, I saw glimpses of when he was at his prime.
However, what I’m seeing now from him is a public display of that softer side that I always knew he had but never showed. And that, to me, is an indication of him opening himself up for us to enjoy him even more at a much deeper level. I hope that he can combine that new softer side with that killer instinct that he possessed on the golf course when he was the one and only player dominating the game. I hope he can find a balance of those two and transcend to an even more powerful player and personality the game has ever known.