When Scott Van Pelt graduated from the University of Maryland in 1988, his friends would tease him by saying he had spent so many years at the school, he ought to run for mayor of College Park.

That was not really an option, and he had no idea what he wanted to do. He had spent several years as an intern at the Channel 5 sports department, but knew that breaking into the business in a major market like Washington would be difficult, so he tried mortgage banking for a while.

A few years later, he started to think about television again, and began sending some tape of his on-air work and resumes to stations around the country. A few weeks passed, and he had heard only from one tiny station in Kearny, Neb. At about the same time, he also got a call from Paul Farnsworth, one of his old friends at Channel 5, who had taken a job as a producer for the fledgling Golf Channel in Orlando.

"I didn't think I could make myself go to Nebraska," Van Pelt said recently. "Paul said I ought to come down to Florida, do some production stuff and in a year or two, I might be able to get on the air."

Van Pelt took a gamble in November 1995 and headed south to join the cable operation banking on the premise that if a golfer can't make it to the course, the next best thing would be to watch all-golf-all-the-time programming.

He figured that if Arnold Palmer, an investor and founding partner in the network, could take a flier, "Why not me, too?"

It was a fabulous career move for Van Pelt, 32. He's tall, blond, telegenic and a self-described "class clown" who was offered a walk-on spot on the Maryland basketball team by Lefty Driesell. That was only a few months before the death of Len Bias from a cocaine overdose and Driesell was soon looking for work himself. Van Pelt never played for the Terrapins, but his luck had clearly changed once he made it to Orlando eight years later.

"In February, about three months after I got there, I was put on the air," he said. "We were in so few homes, I guess they figured they could take a chance and see what happened. It was an experiment that worked. Over the last 4 1/2 years, I've gotten a chance to do so much. I've learned television from the ground floor up. I don't think I'd get the same kind of shot today because we're in so many homes now."

The number is 25 million and rising by about six million subscribers each year. The Golf Channel has a devoted following, and in-house it is often referred to as "The Divorce Channel" because some viewers become so addicted it strains their marriages.

The Golf Channel offers a mix of live or taped same-day coverage of tournaments from around the world, including the first and second rounds this year of the Kemper Open. There are interviews, talk and call-in shows, classic footage of famous matches and other events and a heavy dose of instruction.

Van Pelt has been a mainstay on one of its signature shows, Golf Central, a nightly news roundup not unlike ESPN's "SportsCenter." In this case, though, the only subject is golf.

In the beginning, Van Pelt recalled going to events and being able to roam without anyone ever even saying hello. These days, he has shed his cloak of anonymity and finds himself signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans who recognize him.

"At The Masters this year, I was stunned at the number of people who stopped to say hi and wanted to chat or take a picture," he said. "I can't fathom anyone wanting me to sign their hat right next to an autograph of a Nick Price or a Greg Norman. I'm honored, and it's gratifying to know that what you do is reaching people. The first few years here, it was like being in a vacuum."

Although the Golf Channel has made huge strides, it's still not available on cable in Montgomery County, where Van Pelt grew up and played basketball at Sherwood High School. His mother, Cathie Mathis, still lives in Brookville, and bought a satellite dish just to see her son on television.

She can watch another local product, as well. Mike Ritz, who also joined the Golf Channel at its start-up in '95, was a well-regarded sports reporter and anchor both at Channel 5 and WTOP Radio for a number of years before changing venues and the pace of his life.

Ritz has become one of the most versatile performers on the network, anchoring, reporting and playing host to a number of instructional shows. This week, he's filing reports on the Kemper Open for Golf Central. He has even had a bit part playing himself in Kevin Costner's golf movie, "Tin Cup."

"When I first went out on tour, I'd introduce myself to players as Mike Ritz, from Arnold Palmer's Golf Channel," he said. "It worked. But we've grown so much, that's not really necessary any more. And it's only going to get bigger."

CAPTION: Corey Pavin faces media, including Mike Ritz, center, of Golf Channel. Scott Van Pelt has been a mainstay on one of its signature shows, Golf Central.