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 48-year-old Golftini founder Susan Hess (below, right), a single mother of three teenage boys who turned a fashion emergency into a golf-skort empire.
Q: You make a living selling golf skorts, but your background is in telecom sales. How did you make that leap?
A: I really didn't plan to start this, but it just happened and I went for it. I didn't know what I was getting myself into [laughs].
Q: Tell us about your background. Are you a big golfer?
A: I moved a lot as a kid but spent most of my childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to Ohio State University. My grandfather taught me how to play golf -- both my grandparents played until they were 90. So I learned young, but I didn't play a lot because I did other sports. I was a swimmer and ran track and played soccer. My first career was in sales for MCI. I did that for a good 10 years and I loved it. Then, after getting married and having kids, I moved to New Jersey and became a stay-at-home mom. At age 40, in 2004, I was getting divorced and picked up the game again. I joined a nine-holers club at a public course called Ashbrook in Union County. It took six hours to play nine holes with these ladies -- they followed every single rule -- but it was great. I caught the bug and started playing daily, but I couldn't find anything new that I wanted to wear.
Q: So you decided to make yourself a skort?
A: Yes. I wanted a black skort that didn't come up to my armpits and down to my knees with 100 pleats, but that's really all there was at the time. I went online, I looked everywhere, and I couldn't find anything. My niece worked for Bloomingdale's and she'd given me a copy of Women's Wear Daily magazine, which had a listing of sample makers in the back. So I got in the car one day and drove to New York City. I went into this shady building in the garment district, which I'd never even heard of before. I called a friend and said, "If I don't come out in an hour, this is where I am," because it was really scary. But I met with a woman named Sherry, showed her some examples and told her, "This is the skort I like, this is what I want to change about it." I brought two yards of black fabric, and she said, "Okay, come back in a week." I passed by a really cool ribbon store on the way back in and thought, "That might be cute and kind of sporty." So after a few trials we made this one skort with black-and-white ribbon trim down the side. It was very basic, and I wore it to play golf. Everyone I played with loved it, because it was modern and feminine. It was just cute. Then one of the girls I was playing with said, "I want one, too." So I made another one. Then more friends wanted them, so I made another 20 -- one for each girl, with different patterns and different trim. It would take like a week and then they'd be done.
RELATED: Women In the Golf Industry: Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman
Q: But sewing or design had never been a hobby of yours before?
A: No. I like fashion, I know what looks good on people and I know what looks bad on people. I guess I kind of have an eye, and that's how I find my designs. It's not technical, I'm just aware of everything around me. I'm going with my gut, and it's worked.
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.
Q: You're a 2-handicap golfer, a mechanical engineer and a girl -- three things that don't usually go together. Does it stop people in their tracks when they see you do your job?
A: [Laughs] I guess it's surprising, even though I choose not to think of myself as a novelty but as a part of the team. But yes, I think you have people's attention because there aren't as many women in this industry that can speak with a technical competency about golf clubs and performance, and really also speak from the player's perspective. That's a really powerful package, whether you're a man or a woman.
Q: Before we launch into how you ended up where you are, tell us exactly what a director of metalwood engineering does for a living.
A: We have a strong team of development engineers and designers, and I work with each of them to support and direct their efforts on things like setting specifications, looking at competitive products and analyzing their performance capabilities, looking at new materials and methods of manufacturing, and looking at how we can improve our overall product performance. I also work very closely with our vendors over in Asia as well as locally to execute and manage the projects, and I work as a liaison to our leadership and tour department. I provide technical presentations for their knowledge base, so that they can adequately explain the product performance to our players and our leadership team. And I support our sales and marketing with the same type of information.