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On the Case at the LPGA

CSGA (April 4)–When LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan walked into a crisis-team meeting at LPGA headquarters in early March, having postponed all of the tour’s events in Asia, he challenged his team to tell him how they were going to play the first domestic events.

“There were 20 people in that room and 19 said we couldn’t play. I said, ‘That’s not acceptable. You know we can do this,’” Whan told No Laying Up podcast this week. “But to their credit, I’m surrounded by strong, talented people and they’re telling me, Mike, it’s time to face the fact. As someone said to me once, ‘If you’re in a focus group and you’re the only one raising your hand, you’re probably wrong.’”

A leader of the talented team that was right that day was LPGA’s Chief Tour Operations Officer, Heather Daly-Donofrio, who grew up in Fairfield County and starred at Yale before embarking on a 12-year career on the LPGA Tour.

The early call to cancel events garnered great praise for Whan and seemed especially decisive and certain, but it didn’t feel that way, Daly-Donofrio says.

“It may have seemed like a quick decision, but when you are in the middle of it, an hour seems like a day. The LPGA exists to provide opportunities for our members,” she told us this week. “Our mission is to provide women the opportunity to pursue their dreams through the game of golf. Anytime there is talk about canceling an event, we do everything we can to keep the opportunity alive.”

The Tour’s early experience with the virus made it cautious. Whan says his team learned of the virus on December 31, 2019. “We were COVID before most of the world new what COVID was,” he said. Daly-Donofrio and Whan realized immediately that if a player, volunteer, caddie or tournament official were to test positive for the virus, the entire LPGA “traveling circus” would be quarantined for two weeks in a hotel halfway round the world. On January 30 the tour cancelled its mainland China event. In February, events in Thailand and Singapore followed. Then the aim became to save the domestic schedule, beginning with events in Hawaii, Arizona and California. What it heard from government and health authorities, especially in California, gave them pause.

“Ultimately, the decision to cancel was the result of 24/7 communication with our tournament partners and health and security contacts,” says Daly-Donofrio. Back then it still felt like a close call, said Whan. “You get to the end of the process and say, ‘If I’m right can I live with it? And if I’m wrong can I live with it?’ And the ‘If I’m wrong’ in this case was too tough to take.’”

From March until this week when Commissioner Whan announced that the tour hoped to resume play mid-June with a revised schedule, Daly-Donofrio has been on the COVID-19 front lines, communicating with players, running scenarios about such things as eligibility, qualifying, purses and scheduling. “I am literally tied to my phone or computer from the moment I wake up until I go to bed. I sometimes even sneak a peek during the night,” she says. “My days are jam-packed with calls with our Commissioner and executive leadership team, and with our new partners at the LET. We discuss reworking eligibility, regulations, qualifying tournaments, player communications, etc. on our tours. We go through A LOT of scenario planning every day, and it can change in a moment’s notice. ”

The crisis team that Daly-Donofrio serves on was not created for the COVID-19 crisis. The LPGA periodically runs crisis drills—for such situations as a shooter in place, for example—so to a large extent the make-up of the group was already set prior to Dec. 31 when the LPGA first learned of the virus. Since then, Whan and Chief Tournament Business Officer Ricki Lasky, have worked with sponsors. Daly-Donofrio’s job is to make sure players know what’s going on, to answer their questions, and to support their health.

“My team is really focused on player communication and providing our athletes with resources,” she says. “Every active player on LPGA and Symetra Tours are getting check-in calls from the team, we are providing health and wellness resources through video nutrition consults with our partner BeFitNutrit, and our partners, Headspace and Talkspace.”

It’s that player focus that resulted in a Whan tweet that went viral last month:

To all sponsors who endorse @LPGA athletes. PLEASE consider disregarding # of events they play or how many times they are televised in ‘20!  I know they want to play, but we are keeping them (and others) safe.  Please don’t penalize them for my decisions!!  Respectfully, Mike

As a former player herself, the cancellations have been especially tough for Daly-Donofrio, a two-time Connecticut Women’s Golf Association Champion who turned pro in 1993, won three times on the then Futures Tour and  twice on the LPGA—the 2001 First Union Betsy King Classic and the 2004 The Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions–earning $1.1 million dollars in her career. After serving as a member and then president of the LPGA Player Executive Board, she became the tour’s Director of Media Relations in 2009.

“That’s the hardest part. I know how hard our athletes work, and to not have the opportunity to compete and earn money is so difficult! With many golf courses closed around the world, the toughest part for me would be not being able to practice and train properly,” she says.

“When I competed, I loved to practice and rarely took a day off. I think the unknowns and the what ifs can be scary for some players too: When will we start, what if we don’t, etc. That’s why we are focusing so much time on communicating with our members. I can’t imagine being a rookie this year, finally achieving your dream to play the LPGA Tour and now the dream is on hold and out of anyone’s control.”

While the scenarios are run and the phone calls are made and the daily what-if questions from players are answered, Daly-Donofrio, her husband Ray, a retired PGA Professional who was her teacher, and 13-year-old daughter Hannah, a soccer standout, shelter in place. “We’ve been social distancing since school was cancelled and when I started work from home three weeks ago. Our house has never been so clean, and we have a hand-washing station set up in the laundry room for everyone when they come into the house. I only go out to go grocery shopping or to pick up take-out and I wear a mask and always have sanitizer in my pocket,” says Daly-Donofrio. “We made it our goal to have take-out for dinner a couple of nights a week to help our local businesses. Luckily for us, as of April 3, our golf course is still open and that has literally been a Godsend for our family. It is really the only time my husband, Ray, gets out of the house.”

There’s been one silver lining. “Hannah has taken up the game and is now talking about trying out for the high school team in the fall!!”

Heather’s extended family remains in Northeast: Her parents and one sister live in Connecticut, one sister in Massachusetts, a brother in New Jersey and Ray’s family in Connecticut. One nephew, she’s proud to say, is a first responder in Massachusetts. “I am desperate to get back to CT for a visit, but need to wait this all out. I am sure we will have a grand reunion when this is all over!!”

In the meantime, she sends this message from the front lines: “One, the LPGA has been a strong organization for 70 years and we intend to thrive for the next 70 years. Two, focus on what you do have during this time, rather than what you don’t have. I feel more connected to my team than ever before with the use of video conferencing, and more engaged with my family, friends and athletes through video platforms and social media. Times of crisis can either pull you apart or bring you together. Be a business, a family, a community that comes together. It will help give everyone a sense of purpose and comfort during this unprecedented time!”

Photo: Credit ESPN