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She has a way on golf course

Tilghman is accustomed to scrutiny in her role calling tournaments on TV, and she embraces it.

February 14, 2007|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

As the first full-time female play-by-play commentator on the PGA Tour, Kelly Tilghman is used to crashing glass ceilings.

At 11, she got the wind knocked out of her playing quarterback for a boys' city football team.

"It hurt," Tilghman recalled in her signature husky voice. "My dad made me quit after one year because he told me my body was going to be changing."

As an eighth-grader, Tilghman was the first girl to make the North Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High varsity golf team.

Last month, Tilghman (pronounced Till-mun) made television history when she called the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii with analyst Nick Faldo on the Golf Channel.

Tilghman, 37, is in Los Angeles this week to cover the first two rounds of the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club. If she is even slightly apprehensive about broadcasting the "royal and ancient" game for a male-dominated audience (76%), Tilghman does not show it.

During a round of golf last month, she displayed a passion for the game and a fierce competitive streak.

"Golf is in my blood," Tilghman tells me. "It's who I am."

Growing up in North Myrtle Beach, Tilghman sold range balls, parked carts, drove a tractor, tended the snack bar, pulled crabgrass and worked in the pro shop at her family's Gator Hole Golf Course.

She started playing at 12. After earning a golf scholarship to Duke University, she struggled on professional mini-tours in Asia, Australia and Europe for three years.

An internship at an NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., led to a $21,000-a-year job as a video librarian at the Golf Channel in 1996.

In her new role, Tilghman faces a level of scrutiny that her male colleagues don't have to contend with.

Search her name at Google.com and the first item asks, "Who thinks Kelly Tilghman is hot?" Response: 65% yes.

"It comes with the territory," she says.

Tilghman drove to Encinitas Ranch Golf Course in a gray Mustang. In the trunk is one of three sets of clubs she owns -- Nike woods and irons and an old Ping Anser2 putter. We played the back nine.

Hole No. 10: As we wait for the foursome ahead of us to clear the tee, Tilghman calls outs, "Ladies, give us a lesson!"

One woman in the group recognizes Tilghman. "I just want to say we are really happy with what you are doing," she tells Tilghman. "I can't believe I have tears in my eyes."

Tilghman gets this treatment wherever she goes. "In the beginning it was surreal," she says. "It's very much an honor."

She decides to play from the green markers, which measure 6,220 yards for 18 holes. The thought of using the shorter tees preferred by many women never crosses her mind.

No. 11: I pause on the tee of a 168-yard par-three to let Tilghman hit, but she nods for me to go first. I had a par on the previous hole to her bogey.

"Golf is a game of etiquette," she says.

No. 12: Waiting on the tee box of the 527-yard par-five, Tilghman asks me, "Are you going to write it if I out-drive you?"

On this hole, she hits the ball way right but recovers nicely for par.

No. 13: Tilghman belts her tee shot about 240 yards in the fairway. Her ball soars past my duck hook. That didn't take long.

No. 14: I calculate that it will take a 300-yard drive downhill to reach the green. "I say let's go for it," Tilghman says.

In her competitive days, Tilghman probably would have opted for a safer shot. "Golf was hard work back then," she says. "Now it's fun."

Tilghman hits her drive into the right rough. She then knocks a wedge past the hole, leaving a slick 20-foot downhill putt for birdie. She drains it, then proclaims, "That's the hardest putt I've had in five years."

No. 16: We endure a long wait on the tee, giving golfers in the groups directly ahead of us and behind us an opportunity to take photos with Tilghman.

Joe Meyer, 81, a retired Navy submariner from nearby Carlsbad, congratulates Tilghman on her work but registers a complaint. "Tell Faldo to take diction lessons or get off the air!" he says.

No. 18: Tilghman has played the last six holes in even par. This is remarkable because she has hit only one straight shot with her driver -- normally the most reliable club in her bag.

Standing over the ball, Tilghman pushes herself, "C'mon, Kelly. One good drive!"

Her tee shot sails right again. Mine lands in the fairway. I hit a three wood onto the green, making a birdie to Tilghman's par.

Final score: Los Angeles Times reporter 38, Golf Channel anchorwoman 40.

*

glenn.bunting@latimes.com

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