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Power Player
Yi-Wyn Yen
December 04, 2000
The Tour's Donna Orender didn't make herself the most important woman in golf by being a pushover
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December 04, 2000

Power Player

The Tour's Donna Orender didn't make herself the most important woman in golf by being a pushover

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The most powerful woman in golf is sitting at a table in the dining room at the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., choosing between the seared salmon and the grilled chicken, when a man in a dark suit interrupts. He is an executive from PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Just wanted to come over and say thanks," he says, extending a hand. "Good job. Can't wait to do this again."

Donna Orender jumps from her chair, grabs the man's hand and flashes a wide smile. As the PGA Tour's senior vice president of television, productions and new media, the 42-year-old Orender sees to it that the Tour's sponsors are happy. "Wow, this is exciting," she says. "I'm thrilled. [The Fall Finish] worked out great, didn't it?"

Neither Orender nor the man from PricewaterhouseCoopers mentions Tiger Woods, who only days before had criticized the Tour for allowing Pricewaterhouse-Coopers to use his image in ads congratulating him on winning the Fall Finish, a Tour-conceived promotion. (Woods is reportedly paid $6 million a year to endorse a competing financial-services company, American Express.) After the executive has left, Orender is asked about the dispute. The smile vanishes. No comment. It is not her job to add to the unhappiness of the Tour's most prominent player.

In her 11 years at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Orender's role has grown exponentially. In 1989 she produced Inside the PGA Tour, a half-hour highlights show. Today she heads a multimedia department of about 100 people, the third-largest production staff in sports, after those of NFL Films and NBA Entertainment. Orender brokered the deal that guarantees the Senior tour 198 hours of airtime on CNBC for the next four years, sold packaged programs to 150 countries, brought golf to radio and outlined the Tour's Internet partnership with GolfWeb. In 1997 she negotiated the Tour's four-year, $400 million TV contract with the networks, the deal—a 100% increase over the Tour's previous agreement—that established her as a major player in golf. This spring Orender will be the person the Tour will entrust to bring in even greater riches as talks begin on a new TV contract, one that goes into effect in 2003 and might be worth in excess of $500 million.

Among colleagues Orender is lauded for her high energy level. Adversaries are less polite. "They don't call her Madonna for nothing," says one longtime network employee. However, no one denies that she has helped push the Tour into the spotlight. When the Tour began negotiating TV contracts in the mid-1970s, the networks had all the leverage. The power shifted in the '90s, when the Tour began heavily promoting its brand. Former commissioner Deane Beman credits Orender for that push. Says Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, who will sit across the table from Orender this spring, "She's very tough and effective, but a fair negotiator. Her persona is well suited toward being friends one moment and being cutthroat the next."

Such praise makes Orender nervous. She prefers to share the credit and is quick to stress the support she receives from her husband, Morgan Guy (M.G.) Orender, the president of Hampton Golf, Inc., who was recently elected vice president of the PGA of America. There is, however, no mistaking who is the majority partner in this relationship. "Donna's the president," says the 6' 3", 320-pound M.G. "I'm the greatest corporate spouse on the planet."

He says that by the time Donna walks through the front door of their Jacksonville Beach home—still doing business on her cell phone—he has fed their three-year-old twin sons, Jacob and Zachary, put them to bed and has dinner waiting.

Golf was not always a passion for Orender. Her father, the president of an industrial-coating company, and mother, an art broker, had three daughters. Donna was the oldest. She grew up in suburban New York City playing stickball with the neighborhood boys, rooting for the Knicks and the Mets, and worshiping Phil Jackson.

Orender showed her business savvy early on. After graduating in 1979 with a degree in psychology from Queens College, where she was a 5' 7" point guard on the basketball team, she was drafted by the New York Stars of the now defunct Women's Pro Basketball League. Only 21, she showed up for a meeting with the team's owner with a lawyer friend and negotiated the second-highest contract on the team. "I would have been the highest-paid player, but the team really needed a center," she says proudly. Three years and two trades later, the league folded and Orender took a job as a production assistant for ABC Sports. After a stint at Sports Channel and two years of running her own marketing company (Primo Donna Productions), she took over Inside the PGA Tour. Despite a limited knowledge of the game-it took her 100 hours to edit and produce her first show—Orender quickly made her mark. "She's an inventive thinker," says Terry Jastrow, president of Gaylord Event Television, which produces eight events sanctioned by the Tour. "She was always thinking outside of the box, which is what propelled her along."

That a woman from New York who never even played the game until her late 20s (she's now a 20 handicapper) has reached such a lofty level speaks more to Orender's ability than to any overarching trends in the sport. "The golf culture is a different type of business," says Michael O'Connell, who joined PGA Tour Productions in 1991. "You've got a bunch of blue-coat types. It's a men's club, and here comes this powerful, New York Jewish woman telling them what to do. She has had to fight harder than anybody else." Pointing to the $1.5 million studio the Tour built in '97, he says, "A lot of Donna's will made this possible."

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