The 5.5 million golfers 50 and older are the frequent-golfing generation. They constitute just over 20 percent of the country's players -- yet they shoot more than 42 percent of all the rounds played annually, according to the National Golf Foundation.
And as they get older, this energetic generation plays even more. For example, those 65 and older shoot an average of 48 rounds each year, more than four times the average for golfers in their 20s. Most play mainly for recreation rather than competition, but they do want to improve their game.
So it's not surprising to find mature Americans like Anita and Floyd Bertelsen traveling to a golf school to tune up their game, or to learn the sport so they can join friends on the fairways.
Floyd Bertelsen, who is retired, had played the game for 20 years before heading to golf school. "He is a natural athlete with a 14 handicap," says his wife, co-owner of a recycling company.
"I had occasionally swung a club but couldn't call myself a golfer," Mrs. Bertelsen says. "Because so many of the people we socialize with play, I wanted to learn. Also, I don't engage in any other athletic activities, and golf is something you can do your whole life. It gets you out into the fresh air and sunshine."
So for her husband's 60th birthday, Mrs. Bertelsen signed the two of them up for golf school.
There are at least 150 golf schools and camps in the country with programs that last from one day to one week. While the camps are invariably for junior players, schools attract primarily those 50 and older.
Classes are held throughout the year in a variety of locations. Most of the schools take groups of students to golf resorts across the country. Some schedule learning trips to overseas clubs and resorts. Resorts themselves sometimes sponsor schools taught by their own professionals or a golf-school company.
Golfers can find a wide variety of programs, such as those specifically for intermediate or advanced players, women, families, left-handed players, and players who are disabled. The Golf Digest Instruction Schools, established in 1971 by Golf Digest magazine, are among those offering specialty instruction for low-handicap players, those who want daily 18-hole playing lessons, or who desire instruction in the mental and strategic aspects of the game.
The Golf Digest schools, as well as others such as John Jacobs' Practical Golf Schools, also hold sessions covering particular aspects, such as the short game -- the shots that get the ball off the fairway (or out of sand traps and other hazards), onto the green and into the cup. Mr. Jacobs even has golf conferences for businesswomen that include seminars on the use of golf in career advancement as well as instruction in the game itself.
Most schools, however, are open to golfers at all levels of expertise, who are divided into "classes" based on skill level. Mrs. Bertelsen knew her husband wanted to work on his short game. As a beginner, she needed to learn how to hit all types of shots properly, from long drives to short putts.
So Mrs. Bertelsen chose a weeklong, all-purpose session offered by the Craft-Zavichas Golf School, one of the oldest schools in the country. As with many first-time students, she based her choice on the recommendation of a friend, but she also knew one of its teachers, a pro at the Minnesota club to which she and her husband belong.
Cindy Davis, executive director of the Teaching and Club Professional Division of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), recommends that before signing up for a school, a potential student should interview its director or the pro who is teaching the course. That's because every golf school has its own curriculum and its own flavor, depending on the philosophy of the pro teaching it. A mismatch could put a beginner off golf permanently.
"If you don't have a good first experience," Ms. Davis says, "you may not keep playing. Like doctors and lawyers, there are good and bad golf pros and schools.
"First, be sure the teacher is a PGA or LPGA professional," she advises. "It's like a license to drive and shows that they've been trained and certified as golf instructors."
Ms. Davis suggests that beginners, especially, should know why they want to play: For fun? For social reasons? To play occasionally with their spouse? As a business tool? To become a competitive player? This will help them communicate their needs and wants to the school.
Dorlene V. Kaplan, editor of "The Guide to Golf Schools & Camps," suggests that a potential student should ask first about the philosophy of the school and what will be covered. "Are they going to work with you on your swing or make over your game?" asks Ms. Kaplan. "Some pros believe there's only one way to hold or swing your club, so you must decide if you're willing to go home and continue working on that particular technique."
Find out the student-instructor ratio. Ratios average anywhere from 3-to-1 to 10-to-1. The 14 students in the Bertelsens' group were divided into three classes based on level of expertise.
Ask about the total hours of instruction and length of each session. The Bertelsens had five hours of instruction each day from morning through mid-afternoon, leaving time for a round on the course. Lessons lasted about 1 1/4 hours each and rotated through various types of shots.
"This rotation is so that people aren't standing in the same position and using the same muscles for lengthy periods," a Zavichas spokeswoman says. "And we always have chairs or benches there, and rest in between sessions."
The cost of a golf school is based largely on the price of accommodations, meals and greens fees at a resort. They are scheduled everywhere from four-star to budget resorts. For example, weeklong Craft-Zavichas schools this past spring ranged from $1,685 per person, double occupancy, at Tucson National Golf & Conference Center, to $996 for a six-day school at Pueblo West Golf Club and Inn.
Most schools include some dinners. Often the students lunch with their instructors. "On most nights we dined with people in our group," Mrs. Bertelsen says. "You get to be very close."
Many schools take videos of a student's swings early and late in the course to illustrate changes and improvements.
"As you might imagine, there was a dramatic difference," Mrs. Bertelsen says.
Now that she's playing, Mrs. Bertelsen has discovered one reason why her husband and friends enjoy golf so much. "I find that when I get on the course everything else leaves my mind," she says. "The game takes concentration. Yet it's completely renewable. You always compete with yourself and play differently on different courses. Yet it's a social game, too."
The National Golf Foundation, 1150 S. U.S. Highway One, Jupiter, Fla. 33477, has compiled "Golf Schools of the U.S.," listing more than 150 organizations. Enclose a $3 check or money order with your request.
* "The Guide to Golf Schools & Camps" provides descriptions of 137 organizations. Send a check or money order for $19.95 to ShawGuides, 625 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables, Fla. 33134.
* Craft-Zavichas Golf School, 600 Dittmer, Pueblo, Colo. 81005; (800) 858-9633 or (719) 564-4449.
* Golf Digest Instruction Schools, 5520 Park Ave., Box 395, Trumbull, Conn. 06611-9985; (800) 243-6121
* John Jacobs' Practical Golf Schools, 7825 E. Redfield Road, Scottsdale, Ariz. 85260-6977; (800) 472-5007.