In a new series, Golf Digest Woman profiles some of the most interesting women working in the diverse, often male-dominated world of golf. This week's subject is 42-year-old Kelly Tilghman, Golf Channel host and anchor, and the first female lead analyst for the PGA Tour.
Q: Congrats on your new temp job as host of MSNBC's Olympic coverage. How did this departure from golf come about?
A: I got the call back in late December, right after Christmas. Molly Solomon, who's the coordinating producer for the Olympics, reached out to me and said she wanted me to work the Olympics for them. [Editor's note: Solomon is tapped to move to Golf Channel as Executive Producer after the London Games.] I'll never forget, the last thing she said to me before we hung up was, "Kelly, welcome to the Olympic family." And it just moved me. I was touched, because I've always wanted to do this. My job is basically Olympic host for MSNBC. We'll be carrying 20 of the 26 sports -- some 150-odd hours of the 200-something hours available. It's thrilling. There's a day host and a night host, and I'm the day host. It's a solo gig, and basically what I do is kind of a junior version of what you see from Bob Costas on NBC.
Q: So are you just crazy right now reading up on sports that you've barely even heard of?
A: Uh-huh [laughs]. I'm learning a lot.
Q: What are some of the things you've studied that you never in a million years thought you'd need in your job?
A: The history of England, the history of the UK, the history of Great Britain, the line of succession to the throne, the ancient Olympics versus the modern Olympics, the political repercussions of the Olympics -- you name it. I'm focusing a lot on the history of the Olympics in London. This will be their third time hosting, the only city that can boast that in the modern era. And then I'm focusing a lot on some of the premiere athletes, because we will be telling everyone's story. I'm learning the rules of all these different sports and trying to get to know the athletes from all these different countries. It's pretty cool.
Q: Since NBC and Golf Channel are part of the same family now, will you be doing more of this after the Olympics are over?
A: There's no doubt that I'll be returning to my usual gig at Golf Channel. That was always understood; I never thought this was a break from my current path. I just look at this as a lovely perk, a great reward for some hard work over the years. I think it's very cool that Golf Channel paved the path for the Olympics. I am so impressed with this company. I've always believed that we operated under a glass ceiling. And every time we think we've hit the ceiling, we shatter it and go to a new level. All this is a representation of what Golf Channel has achieved. We're getting noticed now. And the fact that one of us has been able to break away to participate in the Olympics really just speaks volumes to the respect that the company has garnered over the years.
Q: Come now, it says a little bit about your own abilities as well, doesn't it?
A: Oh, I'm thrilled. And I honestly do believe more of our people will be doing this, it's just that the Olympics happens during our endless summer of golf and we can't give up that many people. So maybe my other colleagues are going to get opportunities in upcoming Olympics, whether it's summer or winter. I just feel very privileged to be able to do this.
A: Yes, I was born and raised in a golf mecca, The Grand Strand in South Carolina. My house was located on the third tee of a golf course. If you came out of my driveway and crossed the street, that was the sixth tee of another golf course. And my father co-owned and operated a public 18-hole facility about half a mile from my house. So as you can imagine, I had incredible access. And on my mother's side, my grandfather, Melvin Hemphill, and his sister, my great-aunt Kathryn Hemphill, were both in the South Carolina Hall of Fame as golfers. He was a 47-year teaching professional in Columbia -- as a matter of fact, he was Jack Fleck's teacher when Fleck beat Hogan at Olympic in '55. My great aunt Kathryn was on the Curtis Cup team with Patty Berg, and she was a contemporary of the greats who founded the LPGA, and she also won professional golf tournaments as an amateur. So there's great history on my mom's side of the family, and between my mom and my dad, who had the business connections to golf, it was all around me. It was all I could do to be a golfer.
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Q: What about your brothers, did they play?
A: I am the oldest of five children. My mom and dad had three together, and then my dad remarried and had two more boys, my half brothers. My immediate younger brother, we unfortunately lost him in a tragic accident when I was a teenager. He was 17 and I was 19. It's been a long time and my family has found peace, but it was a very turbulent time in our lives. But he and I hit it around together -- he had quite a temper, so he didn't last very long in the game. My next younger brother was a pretty darn good high school golfer, and then my third brother doesn't care about golf at all; he's a very artsy guy, a photographer. My youngest brother, who's now 22, was probably the best golfer in the family feel wise. He had great technique. His name is Tyler, and he actually waited an extra year between high school and college to go to the Hank Haney Academy in Hilton Head and really gave it a good shot. But he just couldn't score, so he he decided to go and join a fraternity and be a real kid. He's now the president of his frat house and probably drinking a lot of beer [laughs]. He's a great kid -- he and I are very close. I'm super tight with all of my brothers. It's a hell of a get-together when we see each other. You can see where my tomboy-ish side comes from, and my ability to get along well with the guys. I was surrounded by them as a kid, and they toughen you up a little bit. I really value that.
Q: You became a professional golfer after graduating from Duke University. Were you any good?
A: I was a great junior golfer, I really was. And then when I got to college I guess I got a little distracted, like a lot of kids do. My world started to open up and golf kind of fell down the priority list, so I got away from it a little bit. When I graduated from college, I kind of took a break from golf and then started to get the urge to play again, and it felt more natural, rather than forced. So I turned pro at the encouragement of all the guys that I was playing skins games with when I was living in Scottsdale. I went over to Australia and made my pro debut in the same tournament that Karrie Webb made her pro debut in, the Aussie Open in '94. That also happened to be Annika's first pro win worldwide. Those people were my competition, so I knew quickly that it was going to be tough. Then I went to European Tour Q School, got my card, and played over in Europe for a year in '95. It was great exposure; Annika was on the tour there then, and it was Karrie's rookie year as well. I got to know Karrie quite well. Annika was a little more reserved, so she was a little harder to get to know, but over time, Annika and I became closer. I also played the Asian Tour for two seasons in '95 and '96.
Q: Then what happened?
A: I ran out of money. I didn't make a lot of cuts. I had moments of brilliance and just weeks and months of pain. I realized that while I love golf, it didn't feel like the job that was going to keep me afloat. I had to get real, and I had to do it quickly. So I walked away from the game for a while and started to pound the pavement looking for a cool job. I thought about marketing and even contemplated going to law school. I had gotten a pre-law degree at Duke, and I thought maybe I'd go back and pursue that. Then one day after about a month of being away from golf, I got the urge to go hit a bucket of balls and there was a man who came over and watched me hit a few. He told me he liked my swing and asked me if I was a pro, and I said, "I used to be, but I'm all washed up now and thinking about something else." He laughed and said, "I can't help but notice you have an authoritative voice. Have you ever thought about television?" And I thought, not really. He said he used to own a broadcasting firm and had a connection at an NBC affiliate in Palm Beach, and that he could help me get an internship there -- since I had no idea what I was doing anyway. So I took his card and then called him, and he hooked me up with the general manager at WPTV in West Palm Beach. I went and met with this really nice guy named Bill Brooks and he drew me a picture of a dart board on a piece of legal paper. He said, "Kelly, your goal is to get to here (the bullseye). But you're here now (the outside of the rings -- not even on the rings yet), and you have to go through every one of these rings to get to this bullseye. Are you up for this?" And I said, "Yes, sir, I am."
After six weeks of internship at $5 an hour, I made a very horrible resume tape. It was bad, really bad. But I went to play in a golf outing on media at the PGA Club in Port St. Lucie, and I met Scott Van Pelt there. I said, "Man, you're tall, who do you work for?" and he said, "the Golf Channel." I said, "That sounds like it would be a cool job for me. If I give you a tape that's really bad, will you just tell them I'll work hard if they'll hire me?" So he handed off my tape, and two days later I got a phone call. They said, "Listen, we've seen you're tape, and while we can't put you on the air right now, there might be something there. But we can only offer you a job in the video-tape library. It's an entry-level job, you'll be making $21,000 a year, but if you want to take this job to get your foot in the door, we'll see what you can do from there." And I said, "Done. Sign me up. I'm in."
Q: And then you worked your way up through the ranks -- or through the rings.
A: Yeah. Had no days off. Shadowed everybody. Annoyed the hell out of the producers, trying to get them to put me on some TV show. They kept telling me to calm down, be patient and my time would come if I worked hard. I was just one of those nagging dogs on your hemline. I wouldn't let go. Eventually, I got a break, and they let me cover LPGA Tour qualifying as a reporter. So that's where it all began for me. Ironically, tour school is where I got my break in TV, when I had failed there twice as a player. Perfect irony.
Q: Now you're the first woman lead anchor on any sports network. That must feel pretty amazing?
A: It's surreal. It was surreal when they told me they were thinking about me for the job, it was surreal when they told me I got the job, and it was surreal the first night when I went out to dinner with Nick Faldo to feel out our chemistry as a potential team. It's just been great, in every aspect of the word. I've thoroughly enjoyed this ride. It hasn't always been easy, but there have been times when it's been an absolute thrill. I relish challenges -- I've always said, in my line of work, all I ever want is a challenge. In whatever way, shape or form I can get one, I'll try to grow from it.
Q: Any embarrassing secrets you'd like to spill about Faldo?
A: [Laughs] Let's see, he wears shorts a lot under the desk. He'll put the Bermuda cargo shorts on with his Hugo Boss tailored jacket. But really, Nick is a gift to broadcasting. I genuinely believe that. His work ethic is tremendous. He never complains about work. We can be on the air for two hours or for 22 hours, and he gives you 100 percent the whole time.
Q: You guys have worked together for a few years now; do you ever get on each other's nerves?
A: He doesn't get on mine, and you'll have to ask him if I get on his. I have a great relationship with him. I just adore him. We play golf together every now and then, we do dinners together whenever we can, and whenever we're at the same event we try to hang out as much as possible. For years, people criticized him as a player and said he played with blinders on and didn't pay attention to people around him. In broadcasting, he's the total opposite. He's a gem, with a great sense of humor. He loves to talk, he's a good storyteller, and he's smart -- that's a great combination for on-air. I just believe Nick knows what it takes to be number one at whatever he does, and in golf, you don't have to be social to be number one. As a matter of fact, being anti-social sometimes helps you get ahead. But in TV, he gets it. He knows how to turn the engines on and talk a good game.
Q: What's the most difficult part of your job?
A: Travel is sometimes is hard. When you've been doing it since you were about 15 years old you become pretty good at it, but you also develop this urge at some point in your life to stay home more. So getting on that plane isn't always the easiest thing to do. But I love my job, so when I get there, I'm already in work mode and it's good. I find a way to make it work, but that is definitely the hardest part. Although, getting to see the world the way I do is pretty great.
Q: Being on television, you obviously get criticized like every other public person. Do you listen to that stuff or do you completely ignore it?
A: It's a very fair question because we are targets many times for people via social media and whatnot. But I have perspective on that. I understand the difference between someone who just wants to complain versus someone who might have constructive criticism. I think I can see the difference, and I certainly do try to improve based on public opinion at times. Ultimately it's up to me or whomever I trust to weigh and measure feedback and decide what's good for me and what's a waste of my time. Trust me, I listen to the viewers, because that's ultimately who I'm serving. And they need to be satisfied. You just need be able to decipher what's good for you and what's going to consume you too much. But it's part of the territory. It doesn't matter where I am, whether it's the grocery store or the airport or a mall, there's always someone who stops you and says, "Hey, you got a minute? I've got some constructive criticism for you." You could easily shun them or shove them off and say, "You know, I'm very busy right now, but there's a suggestion box in the middle of the lake." Or you could actually listen to them, because who knows, they might say something that clicks for you. I'm not turning to every viewer and saying, "What do you think of me?" But I do listen to them to a certain extent.
Q: What do you think is the part of your job that you do the best?
A: The thing I hear the most from people is that I'm very prepared. I do a lot of homework, but that's kind of part of my nature -- I'm interested. I love minutia, so it just fits. I don't really know what to say about myself in that department, I kind of leave that up to the viewer, but people do tell me that I prepare well. I consider it a blessing that it's something I like to do.
Q: What do you feel the least confident with?
A: [Laughs] That's a great question...
Q: Or after doing it for as long as you have, do you get to a point where you just feel completely confident?
A: I think what I am is comfortable in my ways. That said, I'm always trying to get better. I'm comfortable with how I pursue things, I feel like I have system that works for me, but I'm always looking for new ways to grow it and groom it. That's kind of who I am; if I get complacent with how I do things, then I may not continue to get these challenges that I create, so I need to make sure I stay a step ahead and continue to look for new ways to get better. You know, for athletes -- like, I used to be one, so I kind of get it -- you always want to be better the next day. You always hear that from the greats, like Tiger, and I hear it from Suzann Pettersen all the time. In broadcasting, it's competitive in the same way, I believe, in that if you're not waking up every day feeling like you're better than you were the day before, then you're backing up.
Q: Apart from Van Pelt, who obviously got you the foot in the door, who have your mentors and heroes been in the industry?
A: From an on-air perspective, Mike Tirico has been a wonderful blessing in my life. Mike for years sat next to Nick Faldo doing play-by-play, so when I received the opportunity to work with Nick, it was a no-brainer to call Mike and ask him for some pointers. And he absolutely jumped at the chance to help me and has really been there for me through thick and thin, so I'm really appreciative of him. More recently, Dan Hicks has been a really nice shoulder to lean on. We're developing a real nice bond with NBC, and because I'm doing the Olympics for the first time and he's a veteran categorically. He's such a good guy. He's so down to earth and so good at what he does. He's been great.
And I would be remiss if I didn't throw Tiger into this conversation. Obviously, we work with each other from the media/player perspective, but I've known him for a very long time, since '96, and he has always been available for me to ask questions. You know, when I was going through my growth at the channel and taking on more responsibility, he was always available for me to ask a question. How do you handle this or how do you handle that, and he's always been very good to me in that sense.
Q: After Tiger's scandal broke in 2009, you were the first person who got to talk to him from the media. What was that like?
A: It was very difficult. We only found out the night before that we were going to be able to do the interview, so I went home that night by myself and prepared a list of questions probably 30 deep. I just kind of had to go in thinking, "Okay, he may only answer five of these, or he might blaze through 30 and maybe I need 50." But I thought 30 would be enough to cover everything, or I really thought too much, but I wanted to be more than prepared (there's that word again). I just wanted to make sure that all the questions that I'd been hearing from the public for those few months that he'd been out of action got answered, if he was willing to answer them. And he was. You know, he was answering all the questions that I asked, and we were able to get in quite a few, which was very good.
Q: Did your friendship help in that situation?
A: Yeah. The fact that we had a friendship certainly helped with the trust that I think he may have felt going into that interview. But that said, I know he respected the position I was in, that I had to ask tough questions. I knew he expected the interview to be challenging. He's a smart guy; he understands the business. I could sit here and tell you how that difficult that was for me, but I knew how difficult it was going to be for him. He was the one who was in a really tough spot, and it didn't matter how I felt at that point. This interview was all about Tiger, and it was going to be one of the most difficult things he's ever done. And I had to keep that in perspective the whole time. We both knew that day that we had a very important interview to do, and we were going to do our best to do it right, and to get through it.
Q: Not the kind of interview you expect to do when you decide to become a sportscaster, I suppose?
A: No. Golf is supposed to be a happy sport, and he's the greatest athlete in our sport and potentially of all time. I have always considered it a privilege to be able to interview Tiger, to be able to spend time with Tiger on a professional level. And it was just icing on the cake that we had a friendship outside of it. I cherish that friendship, and I cherish the professional relationship to this day. We're all human and we all make mistakes. Tiger lives in a fish bowl, and I can't judge him because I don't know what his life is like. I can only practice what I try to practice every day in life, and that is to understand that I don't understand. You know what I'm saying? I appreciate him as a golfer, and I appreciate what he's trying to do in trying to get better today. And I don't think anyone will fully understand where he's coming from. I've always said he is a real-life Truman Show.
Q: Your own life must be a little like the Truman Show these days. How has fame affected you?
A: You know, the Golf Channel has grown to tremendous heights; we are the fastest-growing cable network in television. And I've definitely seen the effects of that on a personal level. When I venture out, people do stop me more and more often. But this is just golf, and I certainly don't have the life of a Tiger Woods. I'm appreciative of the fact that people want to get to know me, because it's a good sign for the channel. Both of us started out as the little engines that could, and the Golf Channel is now a locomotive, and I absolutely love the fact that I'm on this train.
Q: Do you ever wish you were back to being that 25-year-old who nobody knew?
A: [Laughs] I'm a shy person by nature, so there are times when I wish that people didn't recognize me. But I also have a good enough head on my shoulder to understand that if they're recognizing me, good things are happening, so that's the perspective I try to keep.
Q: There are more women on air at Golf Channel now than ever in the past. If you were to talk to a college golfer who might be interested in becoming a broadcaster, what advice would you give her?
A: It's very important for these youngsters to know that knowledge is power. A lot of people look at television as a glamorous business, but I believe the people who have true staying power are those who really focus on acquiring great knowledge of their sport, their realm. I tell everybody who asks me to read as much as you can, learn as much as you can about the history of what you're covering, get to know the players, interact with them and make sure you've covered all your bases. The rest of it takes care of itself. The clothing and the makeup and the attention that you get, that all takes care of itself. Just work hard. If you can gain the knowledge, you'll gain credibility, and that's huge. The other side of it is to make sure you stay humble. There's this saying in the television business that you're only as good as your last show. It's not the easiest industry; you have to develop a thick skin, but all the while be open to change and improvement, and humility has a lot to do with that. Knowledge and humility are the two huge components for getting ahead in this business.
(Head shot courtesy of Golf Channel)