- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

PINEHURST, N.C.

Ashley Brooker seemed oblivious to the silver-haired men teeing up next to her on this humid North Carolina afternoon. She raised a golf club over her right shoulder, swung and watched the small white ball disappear in the sun.

“You have to concentrate. When you think about other things it can mess up your swing,” the 15-year-old said as the ball landed on the driving range at Pinehurst Golf Resort, bouncing beyond many of the men’s hits.

On the course for the fourth time in as many days, the teenager from nearby Southern Pines is part of a surge in female interest in golf in recent years. More young women are picking up the sport in high school, where the number of players increased by 1,000 last year. Some then go on to play in college, where Title IX has helped fuel a boom in women’s golf programs.

High-profile golfers such as 16-year-old Michelle Wie and Ladies Professional Golf Association member Annika Sorenstam also have heightened attention to the game.

Though women remain a relatively small part of the multibillion-dollar golf market, the upward trend in female interest has caught the attention of resorts looking for new ways of attracting customers. A number of them, including Pinehurst, are courting women through gender-specific classes and programs designed to introduce golf as a fun challenge.

Women make up just 18 percent of what the National Golf Foundation defines as “core” golfers — the 12.5 million golfers who play at least eight times a year and average 37 rounds annually. At the same time, the number of occasional female golfers — women who play between one and seven times a year — jumped from 2.6 million in 1997 to 4.3 million last year.

“There is an opportunity to ‘upgrade’ the substantial number of occasional female golfers to more frequent players by providing more and better golf course access, playing opportunities and a social framework,” National Golf Foundation researchers wrote in a recent study.

From Arizona to North Carolina, golf resorts are taking the advice, offering everything from multiday getaways that combine golf and spa time to daylong crash courses.

In South Carolina, Kiawah Island Golf Resort offers three women’s programs, including the two-day, upscale “Pampered Putters,” which mixes a round of golf and on-course lessons with spa treatments, champagne and chocolate-covered berries.

At the Boulders in Scottsdale, Ariz. — rated by Golf for Women magazine as the top course for females last year — there are golf and spa packages, and conditioning classes for golfers at the Golden Door Spa.

The Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort on Pawleys Island, S.C., has a three-day “Girls Love to Golf” program with instruction, Oct. 12-15.

And a national group, the Women’s Executive Golf Association, says it has designed a program to teach women to use golf in business that is being implemented by 20 local chapters.

At Pinehurst, a sprawling 144-hole golf resort in central North Carolina, instructors created a daylong course called Discover Golf that aims to get beginners — both men and women — whacking balls before they learn the ins and outs of the game.

“Sometimes the clinics for new golfers, they just go on forever,” said Eric Alpenfels, the resort’s director of golf instruction.

“The first two weeks you sit in a room and learn about etiquette, regulations and technique, and maybe putt the third week. For me, I would be falling on sharp sticks if I could.”

Though designed for either sex, the classes have attracted far more women than men so far, Mr. Alpenfels said — all but two of this year’s 40 students were women.

Kelly McCall was a top golfer on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s women’s team before her 1997 graduation. Now, she is a lead instructor at Pinehurst.

Miss McCall takes students out to the driving range in the morning and provides a few tips on how to stand and hold a golf club, then says “hit the ball.”

No lectures on rules. No etiquette lessons.

“They want to hit the ball, and in a very short period of time we show them they can play golf,” Miss McCall said.

Students are videotaped and their swings analyzed using computer software that can place a student’s image next to their favorite professional golfer for a side-by-side comparison.

Then more hitting, some more tips, and students play a few holes.

When Barbara Thompson took the class in June, she was taken aback at the idea of going right out to the course.

“I think for most of us it was very intimidating, but making us go out and play really proved to us it was something we could do.”

The Raleigh resident became interested in the game when she visited Pinehurst for business last year during the men’s U.S. Open.

Now, she visits the driving range or plays a round at least once a week — and recently bought her first set of clubs.

“I know that golf is a great networking tool,” she said. “I wanted to meet other women and get the chance to network, but it’s also fun.”

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