Every level of the game led her to this point. When Heather Daly-Donofrio, a former tour winner, college coach, and executive within the LPGA, was asked by Mike Whan to spearhead the USGA effort to build a national program, she didn’t have to think long.
“I feel like everything I’ve done in the game so far has led me to this point with the USGA,” Daly-Donofrio said of her newest role. “I’ve been charged with leading the development of a national program as exists in other countries.
“When you look at Golf Canada, the English Golf Federation, the Swedish Golf Federation where they have the national development programs, they are giving their young boys and girls tools and pathways for development from junior golf all the way up to elite amateur and the professional game.
“The opportunity to help facilitate the journey of boys and girls in America to reach their dreams in golf, I’m honored to be a part of that.”
Daly-Donofrio, who grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and will turn 53 on Saturday, understands what a national structure means to families of aspiring golfers. Whether it’s a young girl taking up golf for the first time, or parents taking a second mortgage on their home to pay for junior golf travel and tournament entry fees, Americans have always navigated the dense jungle of the game on their own.
“Had we embarked on this about 30 years ago, it would have been easier. But there are advantages in going last. You can learn a lot from those who went before you.” – Heather Daly-Donofrio
While the Swedish teams show up at everything from AJGA events to the U.S. Amateur in the same blue and gold uniforms with coaches and travel advisers who have been at this for years, American kids come with parents and, if they’re lucky, their local pro. If you are not a generational talent, breaking through in the United States requires a lot of luck and higher-than-average wealth. Talk to parents of any college golfer, and they will all tell some version of the same story – friends saying things like, “Wow, it must be great getting a golf scholarship,” to which the parents laugh and say, “Do you have any idea how much junior golf costs? I could have sent them to Harvard.”
Daly-Donofrio went to Yale and would bristle at the Harvard reference. But she gets it.
“Look, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people, listening a lot, learning a lot and doing a lot of benchmarking,” she said of the dynamic and the culture of American golf. “Had we embarked on this about 30 years ago, it would have been easier. But there are advantages in going last. You can learn a lot from those who went before you. All the national coaches have been very generous with their knowledge and time.”
Daly-Donofrio came to the game late herself, starting at age 15, and doing so only then when an announcement came over her high school loudspeaker begging girls to sign up for the golf team because they didn’t have five players to fill out a roster. Heather, a top-level swimmer at the time, signed up because she thought it was an instant varsity letter, and being a multi-sport athlete would look good on a college application.
“I didn’t have clubs,” she said. “But I hit balls for a couple of days and played in a match that first week. I could never have imagined that answering that call over the loudspeaker would turn into a lifelong career in a game.”
That career would start at Yale, where she was signed as a swimmer, and, as an afterthought, to play golf.
“I swam for two years and decided after my sophomore year that I really wanted to focus on golf,” she said. “That’s when I really dedicated myself to the game.
“After college, there were a lot of different paths I could have chosen. I thought about grad school and I thought about investment banking, which was a path many of my classmates took. So, I asked myself, ‘What is the absolute most difficult challenge I could take on?’ That answer was trying to play the LPGA Tour.”
She didn’t make it right away. In fact, it took five years: two during which she remained an amateur and three when she played on the Futures Tour, now known as Epson Tour. She got a job as head women’s golf coach at her alma mater the same year she qualified through Q-School to play in the LPGA Tour.
That’s when the juggling act began, one that would become a standard part of her career. Daly-Donofrio worked at Yale while playing the tour. Then, after two victories that no one who knew her in her early days saw coming, she took a job with the LPGA as “player liaison,” where she was on the clock Mondays through Wednesdays and then competing Thursdays through Sundays.
That continued until 2008 when she went with the LPGA Tour staff full-time, first in communications, then operations, and then both at the executive level.
“I loved every day of my job at the LPGA,” she said. “It was challenging. I got to work on a lot of different sides of the business, which a lot of people are unable to do.”
This new challenge is even bigger. The upside of a national program is that talented juniors can enter a system in which they are coached, cultivated and have some financial burdens removed. Some of the downsides include questions such as: who decides which kids are talented in a game in which players peak at different times? And how do American parents feel about turning their kids over to something that reminds them of the East German Olympic system?
“There are absolutely a lot of questions,” Daly-Donofrio said. “And we’re going to take as much time as is needed to answer them. But I know we are going to affect the lives of these kids through resources, both financial and developmental. We will be able to provide for them during their journey.
“Everything has led to this,” she said. “The excitement for this program around the globe is encouraging.”
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