Kelly Tilghman, Arnold Palmer
Over the years, Kelly Tilghman forged a strong friendship with Arnold Palmer — so much so, that she even caddied for him in the Masters Par 3 Contest a few times. Photo: @KellyTilghmanGC on Twitter

ORLANDO, Fla. – Kelly Tilghman was a good junior golfer, played collegiately at Duke, competed professionally around the globe for a brief time and then embarked on a 22-year broadcast career at the Golf Channel, becoming one of its most recognizable on-air figures before stepping away one year ago. Golf has been a huge part of her life since she was very young. But her close connection to the game isn’t something a new visitor ever would pick up upon seeing the decor of her home.

There are, however, three photos stacked on the wall that depict a few bucket-list moments. On top, a picture of Tilghman with George H.W. Bush and Tiger Woods at the opening ceremony of the 2007 AT&T National tournament outside Washington; on the bottom, a shot of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – golf’s Big Three – in the role of spectators as Tilghman tees off in front of them on the ninth hole of the Par 3 Contest at Augusta National.

And then there is the special frame in the middle. It shows Tilghman and Palmer, her great supporter, standing on a green during the Par 3 Contest. Tilghman has the Masters flagstick under one arm, and she and Palmer each have one arm around the other. “I asked him to autograph that one for me, and he did,” Tilghman said. “It’s the highlight of my career.”

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Tilghman would carry the bag for Palmer three times in the Masters’ Wednesday Par 3 Contest. In 2007, Golf Channel, an entity Palmer was instrumental in starting, had floated the idea to Palmer’s camp that it would be cool to have an insider on the bag when he played in the Par 3. As of early Masters week, the Palmer camp had not responded to the request. On that Tuesday, though, Tilghman and broadcast cohort Rich Lerner, who were hosting the daily “Live From” shows with hard-wired mics along the right side of Augusta National’s first hole, got word through then-producer Jeff Himes that Palmer was onboard with the idea. He wanted Tilghman to caddie for him.

“The next day,” says Tilghman, “I met Cori (Britt, vice-president at Arnold Palmer Enterprises and Palmer’s regular caddie) out in the parking lot. We met about an hour or two before our tee time. I had reported to get my bib and jumper and my hat and showed up in full gear. Cori gave me a tour of the bag, showed me where things were, and how Arnold liked to have things done. At the last minute, as we parting ways, Cori said to me, ‘Hey, have a great time. And by the way, his group has changed.’ I said, ‘Oh, he’s not with Mike Weir and Vijay Singh anymore?’

“Cori said, ‘No, he’s with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.’ And there the story begins …”

Originally, Tilghman had planned to wear a wire to capture much of the day’s exchange between her and Palmer. But when the grouping turned out to be the Big Three, that changed. She put the microphone on Palmer, and said, “You guys go.”

Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer greets fans during the 2014 Masters Par 3 Contest. Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

“I tried to get out of the way. It was a spectacle, the adoring shouts from the patrons. Everybody wanted a piece of ALL of them,” Tilghman said. “It felt, for a little while, what it was like to be them. … I remember walking from greens to tee boxes, up these tight little, 3-foot pathways, like virtual hallways. If they wanted to, the patrons could reach out and touch you, but they were very respectful. They formed what felt kind of like a cathedral setting, with their arms up in the air. You felt like you were walking through the tunnel at Notre Dame, something of that nature. It was just awesome.”

When the Big Three got to the ninth hole, Nicklaus hit a tee shot to about 12 feet and Player followed by spinning his ball to a foot. Palmer’s shot to the green finished about 22 feet from the hole. Player tapped in for 2, and Palmer then had Nicklaus putt next, and Jack knocked his in. Another deuce. The stage was now Palmer’s alone. He gave Tilghman one of those sly, devilish glances, as if to say, Well, there’s but one thing left for me to do here. And then the four-time Masters champion rolled in the putt, sending a charge through the thousands of gleeful patrons that lined the hole. One more great Masters snapshot.

“They weren’t all perfect shots,” Tilghman says more than a decade later, “but they were all perfect moments.”

“I’d have to rank that moment caddying for Arnold Palmer in the Par 3 Contest as the best. That’s as close as you’re ever going to get to knowing what it’s like to BE him. You’re standing right next to him as they’re cheering for him, yelling out all those ‘I love you, Arnold!’ It was just the coolest experience in the world.”

That next spring, Tilghman and Nick Faldo were in the booth for early-round coverage of Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill, where Palmer would make his traditional visit to the booth. The trio was signing off when Palmer said he had a question to ask on-air. He then asked Tilghman if she would caddie for him once again at Augusta. And so a tradition began.

“You can imagine the feeling that came over me,” she said. “I was ecstatic. The warmth, the humility, all those things hit you like a ton of bricks. I went home and I was giddy … It was wonderful. Of course, my heart broke a little when that year came around when Cori went back on the bag. We have a running joke now when I introduce Cori to someone. I always say, ‘This is the man who took my job.’ ”

Even for someone so immersed in the game, being inside the ropes alongside Palmer, hearing the outpouring of love from the fans, and then seeing it returned tenfold, provided Tilghman an incredible highlight reel of a man she already immensely admired.

Royce Nielson, who caddied for Palmer on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour for 13 years, used to tell people that caddying for Arnold Palmer was like strolling seven miles around a golf course with the Statue of Liberty. “People would just be gaping,” he said. “They couldn’t believe they were really seeing him.”

Adds Tilghman, “I’d have to rank that moment caddying for Arnold Palmer in the Par 3 Contest as the best. That’s as close as you’re ever going to get to knowing what it’s like to BE him. You’re standing right next to him as they’re cheering for him, yelling out all those ‘I love you, Arnold!’ It was just the coolest experience in the world.”

Tilghman stepped away from her broadcast career last March at Bay Hill, wishing to spend more time at home with her daughter, Ryan, who soon will turn 7. At this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tilghman has been asked to serve in a special role. Tilghman, along with Justin Rose and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, will serve as a tournament ambassador this week, trying to fulfill the many duties and tournament-week appearances that Palmer performed for so many years as host.

“I just want to try to do what I hope would make Arnold and his family proud,” she said. “That is, just be there, support the tournament, support the players, the foundations, shake hands with everyone, hugs … you name it. I just want to connect with everybody. I want to try to spread the warmth that I always felt when I came there, what was given to me and my colleagues and the patrons through the Palmer family and through Arnold himself.”

Tilghman, for one, always felt the warmth, and feels very fortunate to have carved a close bond with an American icon. Palmer constantly was encouraging to Tilghman during her broadcast career, and in the role he kindly bestowed upon her at Augusta, gave her memories that will last a lifetime. One special photo on her wall reminds her of that every day.