From Range Rats to Golf Gods

They first met as teenagers at the Patterson Club. He was the son of club members; she was there to work. She was a cheerful girl of Italian and English lineage, only five-foot-one with dark eyes and the sort of “I need to prove myself” drive so often found in middle children from large families. He was a lanky kid of mostly Irish stock, an easygoing lad so long as you were not trying to beat him in one of the sports he played so well, whether it was baseball, basketball or golf. As he grew to his full six-foot-three height, he became more intense, though not so much that he’d lose his famous manners. Even today, a semi-star or not, he looks people in the eyes when they talk and, unlike a thousand other golfers, takes off his hat whenever he goes inside. His parents, after all, were members of the club, and this was where he grew up. So did she, but under different circumstances, as she was a Patterson employee, earning minimum wage in the bag room, cleaning woods and irons for members and hauling their clubs to and from their cars. It wasn’t until those chores were done that she got to play.

But playing was the allure of the job to Heather Daly-Donofrio, now thirty-six, and it was also why J. J. Henry, thirty-one, spent so much time at the Fairfield club. And the two of them teed up together on many summer nights, scrambling to complete a few holes with other juniors and bag room workers before the sun went down. Or they’d go out to the range with head pro Paul Kelly and help out by chipping loose range balls back to the center of the practice green so the picker could gobble them up. If they got a short-game tip along the way, all the better.

“J. J. was this great kid who always wore his Walkman and liked hanging around the bag room,” Heather recalls now, an immediately friendly woman with an exuberant voice. “He was a real range rat, and the guys in the bag room and I always tried to talk him and his friends into charging Cokes on their parents’ account for us.”

Henry has strong recall as well. “Heather was this really cute girl, and my friends and I loved being around her,” he says, ever a little shy. “We were always, like, ‘Let’s play golf with Heather,’ and we all looked up to her.”

Six years is a big difference in age for teenagers, and that kept Henry and Heather from getting closer than casual friends. But they became strongly connected as golfers as their love of the game grew along with their ability to play it better than most. They campaigned through local amateur matches and college tournaments, working their way through dime-a-dance mini-tours until finally making the big leagues — the PGA Tour in Henry’s case and the LPGA for Heather. Thanks to their local celebrity status, the hometown papers still put their names in boldface in the sports page agate.

No, they are not challenging Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam in terms of dominance or legacy. But they are both ranked among the top 100 players in the world. It is also worth considering that Heather has won two LPGA events in her career while Henry has accumulated more than $3 million in earnings since joining the PGA Tour in 2001.

Two kids from Fairfield, from the same club. Were they disadvantaged in not growing up in one of the high-intensity Florida golf schools? Was it a geographical disadvantage coming from a northern clime where weather for much of the year is as dicey as a flyer lie?

Fairfield is a place close to their hearts, and while they leave town for long periods of time in order to pursue their dreams of playing on tour, they never lose their love for Fairfield nor their ability to find their way back home. “I had to move if I wanted to play at the level I needed for the PGA Tour,” says Henry, who graduated from TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and now lives in that area with his wife, Lee Ann, and their son, Connor.

“I had to be where I could play and practice year-round. But whenever I step to the first tee of a tournament, I still have the organizers announce me as being from Fairfield. And I try to get back home whenever I can, to visit my friends up at Patterson and play a couple rounds there. I’ll go to some of the old haunts, like Rawley’s and Duchess and even head down to the Sea Grape for a couple of beers, though I am getting a bit old for that.”

Heather is around more often because she and her husband, Ray Howell, a former club professional and longtime member at Patterson, own a home in Fairfield. “We have a place in Florida as well, but we’re really only there for the winter,” says the Yale grad, who earned her bachelor’s degree in history in 1991. “The rest of the time, this is where my life is. I play or practice at Patterson, or I’ll go to my mom’s house, or one of my sister’s. I like to get my coffees at the Chat ’n Chew and eat at Europa. And then there are family dinners every Sunday night when I am in town, either at my Mom’s or one of my sisters’. We are all expected to show up if we are around, and they are a blast.”

NEW PLAYER, OLD IRONS
Early on, no one thought Heather would ever have to worry about professional golf taking her out of town. She took up the sport as a teen, looking to fill a gap in her competitive swimming schedule in the spring. Her first irons were a set her father, Marty, had stored in the garage. He was a local money manager who also ran his own insurance company for a spell; her mother Margaret is a homemaker. Heather hauled along the old irons when she began playing on the golf team at Fairfield High. Her nine-hole scores were frequently in the 50s, and higher.

It was during that time that Heather decided to find a job that would give her the chance to play more often. So she visited Paul Kelly at Patterson. 

“Heather asked me for work in the bag room, and I remember wondering how someone that small could do the job,” he says. “But she loved golf and wanted to do something with it.” 

Heather’s fierce desire was also clear to Kelly’s successor, Brendan Walsh, now head professional at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Heather was very competitive,” he says. “She’d compete with the guys on the golf course, and also with them at work, trying to make more tips than they did. She also put in a lot of time at the range. I remember her practicing in the pouring rain. I’d be in my office staying dry, and she’d be hitting balls.”

Try as she might, Heather did not have much of a game when she went to Yale. One of five children who changed her last name from Donofrio to Daly-Donofrio to honor her maternal grandfather, she shot mostly in the high 80s and low 90s, and once posted a 102 in a college event — not exactly prodigy material.

“Heather was by no means a great player, but she was an athlete and a very adamant one at that,” says Dave Paterson, the Yale coach.

And her competitive fires were being noticed. “I had a competing coach come up to me during one event to complain that Heather was using bad language,” Paterson recalls. “I guess she was throwing around a few F-bombs, which was quite unusual for women’s college golf at the time. She could be quite volatile at times because she always wanted to excel.”

In time, Heather’s game started to come together as she began working with her future husband, Ray Howell, a lifetime teaching pro who had played in several pro events and was twenty-seven years her senior.

“Ray said he would not help me unless I promised to work hard,” Heather says. “So that’s what I did. He made me believe I could be as good as I wanted to be.”

It appears that Howell had the vision of an oracle. His protégé won the Connecticut Women’s Golf Association in 1992, the year after she graduated from Yale, and then successfully defended that title the following summer. Heather turned professional shortly after that and began playing various mini-tour events in hopes of getting some tournament experience, even as she continued to hold down various club jobs. In 1995 she started playing the Futures Tour, a sort of minor league for the LPGA, and that’s where she began winning, accumulating four tournament victories in three seasons. In 1997 she qualified for the LPGA Tour.

Getting to that circuit, however, was only half the battle, and Heather had to make herself good enough to stay. It was not easy, and she earned only $23,932 for her first season.

WELCOME TO MISERY
“I was miserable,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anybody, and I missed the cut in my first four or five tournaments. Then I had a fifth-place finish, and at the next event, the first person that came up to me was Annika, who complimented me on my playing and said, ‘Welcome to the tour.’ But I missed the cut in the next ten or eleven tournaments, and I got to thinking that I could not do this anymore.”

Part of the problem was that Heather was getting her first taste of how difficult the top women’s tour in the world can be for newcomers. It also didn’t help that she had taken on another job, as head coach of the women’s golf team at Yale. So not only was she busy recruiting new players and working with the team, she was trying to find the winner within on a very tough professional tour — against players who weren’t moonlighting.

But Heather slowly found her way. She stopped coaching at Yale after the 2000 season, and the next summer, fully focused, she won her first LPGA event, the First Union Betsy King Classic. Three years later, she prevailed in the Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions, shooting four rounds in the 60s for the first time in her career and carding a 64 on the third day, her lowest competitive score ever.

This is Heather’s eighth year on the LPGA, and with a slew of friends as well as a new sideline as president of the tour’s important Player Executive Committee, she’s as comfortable as she has ever been.

Her schedule of twenty-three or so tournaments a year will be cut back seriously this year as she is expecting a baby in late summer. But she plans to return to the tour next year, where she will join forty other player-mothers, such as Juli Inkster and Pat Hurst.

GOLF PEDIGREE
The possibility of Henry finding a home in professional golf seemed a lot more plausible than Heather’s when he was testing his chops at Patterson or honing his game on the sand bars near his childhood home on Fairfield Beach, banging Titleists off mud flats flecked with oyster shells. For one thing, he had a strong golfing pedigree, thanks mostly to his father, Ron, who was good enough to play in two U.S. Amateurs, two U.S. Mid-Amateurs and six British Amateurs. At many of  those extremely competitive events, the fellow toting the bag and lining up putts was his son, J. J.

“He got exposed to the game at a pretty high level,” says Ron at his insurance shop on the Post Road in Fairfield. “He was around a lot of those events, and I think he picked up the bug from there, from me and the guys I played against.”

Henry broke 80 for the first time when he was twelve. “I’d drop J. J. off at Patterson in the morning and pick him up at night, “Ron remembers. “I knew early on that that he could do well. Even at twelve, his ball-striking had such a crispness that tour pros on the range would stop and look at him.”

He began blossoming as a player in his teens, becoming an All-State golfer for three years at Fairfield High while compiling a 72-0-1 record and leading his team to two state titles.

Having landed a spot on the Texas Christian University team, he began winning events in and out of school. In 1994 and 1995, he captured the Connecticut State Amateur title, and in 1998, his last year at TCU, he not only won that tournament again as well as the New England Amateur but also was a first-team All-American and individual runner-up at the NCAA Championships. No one was very surprised when Golfweek magazine named him co-college player of the year.

At that point, the PGA Tour seemed to be a foregone conclusion. But Henry barely missed qualifying for a spot there the first time around. He was able, however, to secure a place on the Nationwide Tour, which is only a notch below. And after two years and a win at the 2000 Knoxville Open, he found his way to golf’s version of the majors.

“Making it to the PGA Tour was something I had wanted to do for a long time,” he says. “I remember Paul Kelly taking a bunch of us kids to the Westchester Classic to watch the touring pros, and we would stand with him on the range as they all hit balls. Now, when I am doing that, I see little kids watching me hit, and I feel as if I am living the American dream.”

An even better dream would be for Henry to break through for his first PGA Tour win. His putting, which his dad calls “streaky,” might be the final hurdle. He has gathered several top-three finishes, getting oh-so-close in Phoenix last February when a blistering 61 put him in the lead going into the weekend; he finished tied for second. 

“I still haven’t quite gotten over the hump,” he says. “I feel like I am a better player than I was, a more consistent player, too. I am ready to win. Now, it is just a question of my doing that.”

It is also a question of keeping himself, and his own emotions, in check as he competes. “So much of golf is between the ears, and I need to take an even-keeled approach when I play,” he says. “I can get kind of hot on the course and very down on myself. I am not throwing clubs or smashing tee markers, but I have yelled at myself, or at my caddie.”

Henry spends a lot of time on the road, playing perhaps thirty tournaments a year. But unlike Heather, who has enjoyed the life-on-the-road lifestyle, he does not derive much pleasure from it. “Sometimes you take something as simple as sleeping in your own bed for granted,” he says. “When I turned thirty last year, I wasn’t able to be home with my wife and our baby boy on my birthday. They were at our house in Texas, and I was sitting in a hotel room by myself.”

The vagaries in their schedules and the distances between their homes make it almost impossible for Henry and Heather to stay in very close touch.

“I don’t see Heather very often, but her name is the first one I look for when I read the papers,” he says.

Heather automatically looks for him in the standings, too. “We do play every now and again at Patterson with the same groups of guys with whom we have teed it up on Friday afternoons for years,” she laughs, “and sometimes we exchange phone calls when one of us does well. I remember his calling me when I won my first tournament.”

And very soon — probably this season if his putter stays as hot as it’s been — Heather will be digging out J. J.’s cellphone number and calling him with congratulations for the first win. After all, they’re Patterson kids — friends forever.

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