A groundbreaking career at Golf Channel is coming to an end this week for North Myrtle Beach native Kelly Tilghman.
Tilghman, whose 22-year career at the network included becoming the first full-time female play-by-play announcer for PGA Tour tournaments, said Wednesday that she is leaving the network following this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.
“I’ve done some amazing things, every job Golf Channel has to offer, some even twice," said Tilghman, 48. "My heart is telling me the time is now to close the door on an incredible run and open a new one and begin a new chapter in my life.
"I would be surprised if I didn’t do television again. It’s part of my fabric. But right now I’m just taking a step back to kind of assess things and figure out what moves me.”
Bay Hill is a fitting place for Tilghman to end her run, as Palmer became a good friend over the years, and the two helped build Golf Channel.
Palmer was a founder of the network, and Tilghman’s friendship with him included caddying for the legend in the Masters Par 3 tournament. She is hosting Golf Central this week on site, and will take part in the trophy presentation on the 18th green following the second playing of the tournament since Palmer's death.
Tilghman was among the early hires at the network, which began broadcasting in 1995, and has fulfilled numerous on-air roles that have made her a household name in golf, including hosting shows such as Golf Central, Morning Drive, Live From, Academy Live and The Grey Goose 19th Hole.
Tilghman became the network’s primary PGA Tour lead announcer in 2007, working alongside color analysts Nick Faldo and Peter Oosterhuis for Golf Channel's bold foray into PGA Tour event coverage. The network broadcast the first two rounds of every regular PGA Tour event that year, and all four rounds of 13 events.
Golf Channel had reported on the PGA Tour but had not broadcast its events prior to 2007, and Tilghman was selected to lead the broadcasts.
“She's clearly if not the most popular face on the network, one of one or two, and it made a lot of sense in that regard,” then-Golf Channel executive producer of tournament coverage Keith Hirshland told The Sun News in '07. “There were a lot of people who were skeptical. Clearly there was never any question in anybody's mind at the Golf Channel that Kelly would have no problem doing it.”
Tilghman grew up on her family’s Gator Hole Golf Club — her father, Phil, is a former mayor of North Myrtle Beach — and she played on the boys' team at North Myrtle Beach High and the Duke University women’s team.
She had a short-lived pro career that took her to tours around the world and in 1996 she was on a driving range contemplating her next career move when she was approached by a former television executive who was impressed by her swing and voice and asked if she was interested in television.
He helped get Tilghman a position as an intern at an NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1996, within six weeks she was in the library of the fledgling Golf Channel and by November 1997 she was in front of the camera.
“It’s an exciting time in my life," Tilghman said. "When I was a young golfer in the Myrtle Beach area, I always thought my path was to be an LPGA Tour professional. … I gave it my best and at the age of 26 I realized I’m not as good as Annika Sorenstam and I'm not as good as Karrie Webb, but I want to have a strong career somehow. I made the choice right there to close that door knowing I gave it everything I had.
"Low and behold a new door opened and I created a great career at Golf Channel."
Tilghman posted a farewell note to viewers that also served as a thank you letter to golf and the Golf Channel on the network's website Wednesday morning.
Golf Channel colleagues held a private farewell party for Tilghman on Tuesday night at a restaurant near Bay Hill in Orlando, which is also near her home, and it included a video montage of many of her highlights at Golf Channel along with players thanking her and wishing her well, including Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
"It was wonderful, emotional and deeply sentimental," Tilghman said. "Today has been a whirlwind day of hugs, congratulations and what's coming next."
Viewers may have noticed Tilghman had cut back on her Golf Channel schedule over the past few years, which she did intentionally as a form of an exit strategy, with the network's blessing, she said.
"I feel I gave Golf Channel everything I had and I’m seeking new challenges," Tilghman said. "They could come in so many forms and I want to be open for those. I’m not going away, I’m just taking a step back.”
Tilghman has maintained ties to the Grand Strand, and in recent years she has become a supporter of The First Tee of Coastal Carolinas, taking part in and helping to organize an annual Future Generations Tournament fundraiser each summer at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club.
Tilghman is also a founder of the Gene’s Dream Foundation, which has a mission to support junior golf and is named after the late Gene Weldon, a four-decade golf pro in the area who was Gator Hole’s 20-year pro from 1980-99 and a mentor to Tilghman in the golf business.
The first big Gene’s Dream event is the Mentor Cup tournament featuring junior golfers and their mentors and an affiliated two-hour stand-up performance by golf funnyman David Feherty on Oct. 27. The tournament is at Tidewater Golf Club and Plantation and the field is filling up. Feherty's performance is at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. Tickets go on sale the first week in April. "That keeps me insanely busy right now," Tilghman said.
She has some charity outings and corporate events planned, and also will have more time to spend with her 5-year-old daughter, Ryan.
"Every component of my life is a part of this decision," Tilghman said. "It is not about my family so much, it's about the next phase of my life. It gives me an opportunity to focus on my future and family.”
Tilghman was inducted in the Myrtle Beach Golf Hall of Fame in 2016, and her mother, Kathryn, spoke on her behalf during the ceremony at Pine Lakes Country Club.
"It was a hell of a run. I leave with nothing but fond memories," Tilghman said.