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A conversation with Duke’s Kelly Tilghman, female voice of PGA Tour

Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel chats with Lydia Ko of New Zealand, Stacy Lewis and Natalie Gulbis during the LPGA Player Showcase prior to the start of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship on the West Course at the Westchester Country Club on June 10, 2015 in Harrison, New York.
Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel chats with Lydia Ko of New Zealand, Stacy Lewis and Natalie Gulbis during the LPGA Player Showcase prior to the start of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship on the West Course at the Westchester Country Club on June 10, 2015 in Harrison, New York. Getty Images

As the year’s final major teed off Thursday at Whistling Straits, Kelly Tilghman was on hand to anchor the Golf Channel’s coverage of the PGA Championship.

Tilghman, a Duke alum and former player, joined the Golf Channel after she retired from professional golf in 1996 and currently hosts a number of programs that include Golf Central, Live From and Morning Drive.

“We’re here. We’re caffeinated. Play has begun,” she tweeted Thursday morning, encouraging fans to watch their live coverage, which started at 8 a.m.

Tilghman was the first female play-by-play commentator in PGA Tour history and said she someday hopes to broadcast an LPGA event from Augusta National. Tilghman has traveled to the home of the Masters in past years to caddy for Arnold Palmer in the famed par-3 tournament.

This weekend, Tilghman expects Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy to challenge for the Wanamaker Trophy.

The N&O caught up with Tilghman last week. She touched on a range of topics, but the conversation started at the beginning, in the Triangle:

Q: How engaged would you say you are with the Duke athletic program?

Tilghman: I’d say I’m fairly engaged. I go back for basketball games from time to time. I follow our football team and their tremendous growth and progress. I still keep in touch with many of my former teammates ... I follow and support the women’s golf team on Twitter, and if I can make it to a reunion, I’m there.

Q: Which Duke athletic highlights stand out to you?

Tilghman: I went back for a Duke-Carolina basketball game a few years ago and I took my youngest brother and my best friend from childhood. (My brother) grew up a Duke fanatic ... and we sat about six rows behind the bench and we could hear Coach K. During timeouts calling plays, we could see what he was doing on his dry erase chalkboard. Pretty neat experience, and we happened to win that game by about 30 or 40 points. ... While I was there, I ran into Jay Bilas on campus. ... We have become friendly because of our association with Duke, and he loves golf.

Q: Why did you pick Duke?

Tilghman: Why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you? … In 1986 I played in the U.S. Girls’ junior at Peach Tree Country Club ... I was defeated by a young girl from Hawaii on the 17th hole. It was a par-3 with virtually an island green and I flew my first tee shot into the water over the green. I went down one club and hit my second shot from the tee box and I knocked it right onto the edge of the lip of the cup. I tapped it for a bogey and I walked off defeated … and the Duke golf coach was waiting right there for me off the green, and he said to me, “Kelly, I’ve been following you for a few holes. That’s the best bogey I’ve seen in a long time. Have you ever thought about going to Duke?” ... It was a no-brainer. I was a huge basketball fan, I played high school basketball. We were state champions. I had a soft spot in my heart for basketball. And I had a crush on (former Duke point guard) Quin Snyder, and that was it for me. I knew I wanted to go there. ... Most importantly, I wanted the degree because I wasn’t convinced I was going to be a professional athlete my entire life. ... I really cherish being a little girl from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., in a public 2A high school, having the opportunity to go to an elite university like Duke, so I definitely jumped onto it.

Q: What was the transition like into the booth?

Tilghman: When I finally finished competing in 1996 – I played professionally on various tours and I failed to get my LPGA card on two occasions – I had hit the wall financially and psychologically. I hit the wall with golf and knew it was time to make a break. And I had to ask myself the question, “What was this all for? What do I have to show for all of this?” ... I didn’t have a stitch of background in television, but to have all of that golf knowledge accumulated over the course of the better part of my life, that was what got me in the door at Golf Channel. ... It was a great opportunity for me to cut my teeth in front of a camera and kind of a baptism by fire. That would really sum up my career, because every opportunity I had to do something new at Golf Channel, whether it was graduating from a taped show to a live show or jumping into the booth with Nick Faldo, it was always something I’d never done before but an opportunity I didn’t want to turn down.

Q: Who were some of the inspirational figures who served as role models?

Tilghman: From a broadcasting standpoint, Tommy Roy at NBC. He’s the man who’s in the chair for our golf events. … Tommy was a huge mentor for me in the early phases of my development at Golf Channel. Even though NBC and Golf Channel were not partners yet, Tommy always took great interest in my career and went out of his way a lot to nurture me coming up. As I became more experienced at Golf Channel and had the opportunity to do the play-by-play work, Mike Tirico was a nice shoulder for me lean on when I was trying to wrap my head around what it takes to do play-by-play versus studio anchoring. ... He was a great resource for me and he was so incredibly helpful. And to this day, Mike and I still keep in touch.

... Arnold Palmer has been a tremendous figure in my career. He’s always been there for me. He’s always invited me to be a part of so many of the events that he has led or been a part of in his career. And I’ve always valued that relationship with him. He’s been wonderful.

... Annika Sorenstam has been a mentor for me in a lot of ways and a role model, kind of a blend of the two. Annika and I are the same age, we competed against each other professionally and she is the reason that I and a number of people didn’t make it in golf because she won everything and took all the money. I always looked up to Annika as a player. And now, funny enough, some 20 years later, she’s now calling me to get advice as she develops a career in television. And I said to her one day, “Annika, you don’t know how much it means to me that you’re asking me for advice and direction. I always looked up to you.” And she said, “Kelly, now I’m looking up to you.” And I just thought that was the coolest thing that ever happened.

Q: How do you balance your role as the leading female golf personality versus being thought of in the same context as your male counterparts?

Tilghman: I’m not someone who runs around kind of taking every opportunity to preach equality. It doesn’t mean I don’t want it or believe it’s the right thing. What I try to do is let my actions speak louder than my words. I more than anyone would love to see equality for women categorically in life, let alone in broadcasting. ... I’ve always hoped that if I can just do a great job, that people will forget my gender and turn to me as someone they enjoy watching on television. ... I want to be seen as a journalist, as a reporter, as a broadcaster – whatever you want to call me – I want to be seen as those titles and not as a female broadcaster, a female journalist. ... I’ve never wanted my appearance or my persona to outweigh my words. That’s the best way to put it.

Q: Do you still face backlash from the Tiger Woods comment (Tilghman was suspended for two weeks in 2008 after an inappropriate on-air remark), and how has that incident changed you?

Tilghman: There really is no further backlash from that comment, and I’m very thankful for that because to me it means that a lot of people forgive and move on. And I think that is what we teach our kids when they’re growing up … It’s what we want them to believe is out there in society. … That’s such a beautiful thing that I’ll be able to say to my daughter someday: If they can forgive mommy, you can be forgiven too if you make mistakes.

Q: How good is Jordan Spieth for golf?

Tilghman: I have met him numerous times, spent some quality minutes around him in the short time he’s been on tour, and he has never let me down. He’s such a solid individual. I think we live in this era now where a lot of these premiere athletes are suffering from very bad press, and Jordan seems like an antidote in so many ways. You can only hope that the success he’s experiencing at such a young age doesn’t change him or tarnish him in any way.

Q: How much were you pulling for Spieth to keep the Slam attempt going?

Tilghman: We’re experiencing this incredible summer of slams. It was American Pharoah with the Triple Crown. It’s (Serena) Williams on the brink of her own personal history. To see Jordan Spieth do that, you wanted to see golf be a part of that conversation. For most of the major championship season, it was. He fell just a shot short of keeping that dream alive. What he’s doing, it’s epic. Couple it with his age, it’s such a beautiful story. So yeah, there is no cheering in the press box, but sports fans in general wanted to see this story continue. From a media standpoint, it was sensational. I hated to see it ended.

Q: How long do you think before a women’s tournament takes place at Augusta?

Tilghman: I think that if there’s enough of a pining for it, if we continue to see the progressive movements that (chairman of Augusta National) Billy Payne and everyone around him are making these days, I wouldn’t rule it out. But it’s hard to imagine with their schedule that they can make it happen. … I’d love to see it. I’d absolutely love to see it. Not only that, I’d love to broadcast it.