How a Myrtle Beach event and charity is tied to this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational

Kelly Tilghman with Arnold Palmer
Kelly Tilghman with Arnold Palmer Kelly Tilghman submitted photo

The appointment of North Myrtle Beach native Kelly Tilghman as an ambassador and co-host for this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational could have a residual impact on the Grand Strand.

Tilghman will be promoting the Strand-based Gene’s Dream Foundation and its fundraising events during the PGA Tour event at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida, and that could ultimately benefit junior golf and other youth initiatives in the Myrtle Beach area.

Tilghman is a co-host of the tournament with the Palmer family and is one of three tournament ambassadors, along with participant Justin Rose and Orange County (Fla.) Mayor Jerry Demings.

Since Palmer’s death in 2016, ambassadors have stepped in and served in traditional hosting roles at the tournament, and Tilghman has a week full of events to attend, including a gala and pro-am dinner.

Tilghman helped create the Gene’s Dream Foundation in 2017 in honor of late longtime Strand golf professional Gene Weldon, who was a mentor to her growing up, and it will stage both the second Mentor Cup for junior golfers and mentors and an affiliated fundraising tournament on Oct. 26 at Tidewater Golf Club.

The Gene’s Dream Foundation, Mentor Cup and Dream Challenge have already gained some exposure through a press release announcing the Arnold Palmer Invitational ambassadors.

The Gene’s Dream Foundation is committed to benefiting The First Tee Coastal Carolinas, of which Weldon was an ardent supporter, and other youth organizations and initiatives.

Tilghman was asked to be a tournament ambassador during a lunch with Palmer’s daughter, Amy Saunders, about a month ago and she said they discussed how the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation and newly created Palmer Legacy Foundation could join forces with Gene’s Dream.

“This was a total surprise for me. I was overwhelmed with the honor,” Tilghman said. “Amy and I have openly discussed ways our foundations can work together. Right now we’re in kind of the collaborative phase.”

Tilghman, whose two decades at Golf Channel – of which Palmer was a co-founder – included becoming the first female full-time play-by-play announcer of PGA Tour events, became good friends with Palmer. She caddied for him three times in the Masters Tournament’s Par-3 Contest.

“I had a special relationship with Arnold and one of the gifts he gave to me was allowing me to get to know his family and I’m lucky to call them friends,” Tilghman said. “Amy and I are becoming very good friends. We’re getting closer every day and it’s because of our foundations.”

Saunders is the chairman of Arnold Palmer Group and is essentially running her late father’s companies and affairs with the help of her husband, Roy, the vice president of Bay Hill.

The Palmer conglomerate is worth about $700 million, according to an article by the Orlando Sentinel, and features a golf course design business, course ownership, a clothing line, the iced tea and lemonade beverage that bears Palmer’s name, and the PGA Tour tournament and host course.

The Dream Weekend will be held Oct. 25-26 and is expected to include a gala dinner with live and silent auctions, entertainment and two tournaments.

It gained a presenting sponsor in Liberty Mutual Insurance, which has signed on for a minimum of three years, and also added sponsors Cobra Puma Golf, Bridgestone Golf and Under Armour.

The weekend will include the second Mentor Cup, which is being cut from 18 to nine holes of scramble and alternate shot and will tee off at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 26. Organizers are also offering instructional and motivational clinics for the participants. Applications for the Mentor Cup will be accepted beginning April 10.

The afternoon Dream Challenge is new to the weekend’s activities. The captain’s choice tournament with availability for 32 four-person teams will serve as a qualifier for the 2019 Liberty Mutual Invitational national finals at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, which is the culmination of a series of more than 70 charity tournaments around the country that annually draw more than 10,000 participants.

The series raises millions of dollars per year for charity – it raised $9 million in 2017 according to its website.

The entry fee for the Dream Challenge is $2,500 per team, and the golf equipment and apparel sponsors are contributing to a tee gift for each participant valued at more than $600. Tilghman said more sponsors are being sought.

The inaugural Mentor Cup and affiliated events, including a gala dinner at the Surf Golf and Beach Club, tournament, and stand-up performance at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center by David Feherty, raised $50,000 for The First Tee Coastal Carolinas, which benefits area youth through the game of golf.

Tilghman is securing celebrity participants in the Mentor Cup, and is working on nationally-recognized entertainment for the gala or a date and location near the Dream Weekend. Players can register for the Dream Challenge at

“We’re trying to do something similar to what we did last year,” Tilghman said.

Bhatia impresses

Akshay Bhatia showed why he’s the No. 1 junior in the world, and gave the namesake of the Dustin Johnson World Junior Golf Championship something to brag about.

Bhatia, who is ranked No. 7 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at the age of 17 and is a student of director of instruction Allen Terrell at the Dustin Johnson Golf School at TPC Myrtle Beach, won DJ’s junior tournament in record fashion on Sunday.

Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., shot a 3-under-par 69 in the final round for a six-shot win over runner-up Luke Clanton of Miami Lakes, Florida, with a 10-under 206.

He shattered the tournament scoring record of 5-under 211 set by Trent Phillips in 2017.

He also equaled TPC Myrtle Beach’s 54-hole tournament record of 206, set in 2007 by East Tennessee State University’s Rhys Davies. For 11 years the TPC hosted Coastal Carolina University’s 54-hole General Hackler Championship collegiate event, and Johnson himself played in the event four times and Patrick Reed is also a part participant.

The course played around 7,000 yards for the DJ Junior, as it did for the Hackler.

Bhatia’s four DJ Junior appearances have mirrored his meteoric rise in the game. He finished 10th in his first two appearances and second in 2018.

Alex Pano of Lake Worth, Florida, the third-ranked junior girl in the U.S. at the age of 14, also set a tournament record in defense of her 2018 DJ championship.

Pano became the first player – boy or girl – to win the tournament twice, entering the final round with an eight-shot lead and shot a 71 to win by 12 strokes with a 7-under 209 that eclipsed her own tournament record by nine strokes. LSU signee Latanna Stone of Riverview, Fla., finished second.

Pano has been the leader at the end of all six rounds she has played in the tournament.

First Tee holds programs

The First Tee Coastal Carolinas will begin eight-week Spring After School Programs from March 11-16 for youth ages 7-17.

The eight program sites are Willbrook Plantation, Wedgefield Plantation, Wachesaw Plantation, Cane Patch Driving Range, Legends Resort, The Hackler Course at Coastal Carolina, Crown Park Golf Club and Eagle Nest Golf Club, which is hosting Saturday afternoon programming from 2-3:30 p.m.

The programs focus on golf instruction, fun golf skill games and a life skills curriculum based on nine core values.

There are different levels of programs, and the top levels of Eagle and Ace focus on competitive golf, nine healthy habits and community service.

Participants can register at or contact director Patrick O’Brien at or 843-467-3020.

MAM caddie spots

Caddying spots for juniors in the 25th Hootie & the Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am will be up for grabs through the “Papa Ed” Caddie Classic being held March 24 at Lancaster Golf Club.

The top players will qualify to caddie in the Hootie MAM on April 15 at the Barefoot Resort Dye Club.

The entry deadline for players 13 to 18 is 5 p.m. March 14 and the entry fee is $72. Players can register at

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Alan Blondin covers golf, Coastal Carolina athletics and numerous other sports-related topics that warrant coverage. Well-versed in all things Myrtle Beach, Horry County and the Grand Strand, the Northeastern University journalism school valedictorian has been a sports reporter at The Sun News since 1993, earning eight top-10 Associated Press Sports Editors national writing awards and 18 top-three S.C. Press Association writing awards since 2007.