Heather Daly-Donofrio's cool sports job: LPGA executive

LPGA

Heather Daly-Donofrio serves as the LPGA's chief communications and tour operations officer, helping get players acclimated to the LPGA Tour and growing the sport worldwide.

Heather Daly-Donofrio, LPGA chief communications and tour operations officer, played on tour from 1998 to 2008. She won two events -- the 2001 First Union Betsy King Classic and 2004 The Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions -- and also served as player president in 2005-06, which provided a window into the workings of the tour.

Daly-Donofrio, 47, a Connecticut native and Yale University graduate who lives in Florida with her husband, Ray, and daughter, Hannah, talked with espnW about balancing work and family life, the LPGA's recent momentum and being one of the few Ivy League graduates to play professional golf.

LPGA

As a player, Heather Daly-Donofrio won two events: the 2001 First Union Betsy King Classic and 2004 The Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions

Earlier experiences are valuable

In a typical company, you wouldn't think of putting communications and operations together, but with the LPGA it makes sense. There is a lot of crossover between those two departments, especially on the tournament level. When we're on site, we're getting a lot of requests for players, whether it's sponsor-related, media-related or television-related. I truly do have one of the coolest jobs in sports, particularly now, overseeing two very important parts of the business.

I started working part-time for the LPGA in 2008 as a player liaison when I was still competing. I was on duty Monday through Wednesday and in player mode the rest of time. It was a great way for me to get my foot in the door with the LPGA. I had been on the board for four years, president for two and I knew I wanted to transition.

Hannah was born in 2006, and I really struggled being a mom and a competitive player. I knew it was time to do something else in 2007 at a tournament in Rochester, New York. I had two holes to play and needed a birdie to make the cut. The next-to-last hole was a par 5, so it was very possible, but all I could do was check my watch to see how quickly I could go pick up my daughter. That was my wake-up call that it was time to do something else. When I retired, my position became full-time, and when commissioner Mike Whan was hired, I applied for director of media relations. I moved into my current position last fall.

Being on the board, and particularly being president, was invaluable. As a player, you don't always understand why certain decisions are made -- how sponsorship works, what it costs to run a tournament. Representing the players, you get to build relationships with LPGA staff. You learn how to run meetings and build agendas. You work on your communication skills. It was great experience for the role I stepped into when I stopped playing.

From the Ivy League to the LPGA

Going to an Ivy League school wasn't your typical route to being a professional golfer. Growing up in Fairfield, Connecticut, I knew from age 8 I wanted to go to Yale -- that was when I swam in a meet at the Yale Natatorium. It is the most incredible building. I was recruited for both swimming and golf. I swam for two years then stopped to focus on golf. I majored in history, concentrating on American and British history. I wrote my senior thesis on Joseph Rauh Jr., the well-known civil rights and civil liberties lawyer.

Hannah knows the tournaments and the players. She got to be a standard bearer for the first time last year. ... She said, 'Mommy, you can never get another job.'
Heather Daly-Donofrio

I'd won the state amateur a couple of times but was a mediocre player at best coming out of Yale. I still knew I wanted to play the tour. It was one of the hardest goals I could have given myself. I started on the mini-tours, then played the Futures Tour (now Symetra Tour), where I won three times and got a flavor for professional golf.

I failed four times to get through LPGA Q School, but in 1997, right after I'd accepted a job as women's golf coach at Yale, I got through. The athletic director was great, finding a way to let me coach and play on tour. The Yale job gave me some security: a steady paycheck and health benefits. I enjoyed doing both, but after three years it was just too much.

When I won my first LPGA event in 2001, it was unexpected but amazing. I think it surprised a lot of people, those who had told me I wasn't good enough. Winning was validation that I had taken the right path, and I had proved those people wrong.

Being a rookie when you're 28, like I was, is so much different from what is happening in women's golf now. The young women are often a decade younger than that now when they get on tour. They are so mature, poised and talented. It's really remarkable.

Helping young players adjust to tour life

We do a lot of training with our players when they first come out. We talk to them about how to interact with customers in a pro-am or at a pro-am party. We do some media training. We talk to them about caddies, finances and travel planning. We try to give them a level of comfort and security and as much information as they need to be comfortable doing their job. We also started a relationship-building program called PODS. The groups consist of three or four LPGA rookies, a current and retired player and an LPGA staff member. It's really been quite successful.

The tour is doing so well right now for a variety of reasons. We've experienced a lot of growth in past five or six years in terms of the number of tournaments and growth in purses and TV hours. I think the organization has done a good job of getting back to basics, what drives the tour and its sponsors. That really means focusing on our customers and their needs. We're not afraid to try different things. We launched the Founders Cup without a purse the first year. What other professional athletes would play an event for no official money? That's unheard of in sports. But look at how that tournament has developed and had an impact over the years.

The influx of players from around the globe has helped us grow internationally. We truly are a global tour, and we got there before most other sports did. We've been capitalizing on our strengths, which are our players and their personalities, and the global nature of our tour.

Having been inside the ropes and gone through struggles, the highs and lows of being a player, the travel, I understand the mindset of the players. I understand what they're going through because I've been through it. I know what it's like to have had a bad round and be asked to spend time with a sponsor or a media person. Having that perspective really helps me every day I'm on the job. I don't think I could do my job as well if I hadn't been a player.

Balancing work and family

I travel a lot. It was well over 100 days on the road last year including a lot of international travel. I actually travel more now than when I played, but it's a blessing to have the Smuckers child-care centers. I'm able to take my daughter with me on the road in the summer, and we have such a good time.

Hannah knows the tournaments and the players. She got to be a standard bearer for the first time last year at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. For a whole month before, she said she wanted to carry in Morgan Pressel's group. I told her that's not how volunteering works, that you don't get to pick and choose, that you have to be happy with which ever player you get.

LPGA

Heather Daly-Donofrio didn't make any special request to have her daughter, Hannah, be a standard bearer for Morgan Pressel's group. But when it happened, Hannah loved every moment.

I didn't put in any sort of request, didn't say anything. We get to the tournament and she was in Morgan's group. I carried the numbers. I think it was one of the best days of her life so far. Morgan shot 63, and Hannah was doing a birdie dance every time she made one. Hannah loves the LPGA. She said, "Mommy, you can never get another job."

The key for me in balancing my life is patience and perspective. I do work a lot of long hours, but when I'm with my family, I'm with my family. The phone's not out, and I'm not on the computer. When I'm home, I cook dinner almost every night. We sit down, say a prayer and talk about our days. I bet our dinner time lasts longer than most families.

It's real important to have a strong support system when you're a working mom. It's definitely a team effort with my husband. He's a great dad and manages everything when I'm gone. I would not be able to have the job I have without his support. I'm very lucky.

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