Women are teeing up to swing into business on the golf course


Kay Lynn Wolfe stands on the practice range of a golf course, watching her shot arc gracefully and land a couple of hundred feet away.

"All right!" she says to herself, waving her golf club in the air, a satisfied expression on her face. Then, businesslike, she lines up the next shot.

At 30, Ms. Wolfe is learning the game of golf -- not just for sport, but for business. A certified public accountant, Ms. Wolfe decided she needed to be able to play the next time a business contact sponsored a golf tournament or outing. So here she is, with colleague Karen Ellis, taking her first golf lesson ever, at the inaugural meeting of a Fort Worth, Texas, chapter of the %J Executive Women's Golf League.

"We don't want to be left in the office because we don't play," Ms. Ellis says.

Exactly, say the founders of the group.

They're not interested in golf just because it's fun, says Ima Jean McReynolds, an insurance agent. They've also realized how important a passable golf game can be in fostering business deals.

"We want to network with other business executives and get a good-ol'-boy system started for us," Ms. McReynolds says. "[Men] have been doing it for years. We need to catch up."

Only about a quarter of the country's golfers are women, a proportion that has held fairly steady for years even as the number of golfers multiplied.

In 1992, 24 million Americans played golf, and 24 percent of them were women, according to an annual survey by the National Sporting Goods Association. In 1985, only about 19 million Americans golfed, but 26 percent of them were women.

Still, there has been a boom in women recognizing the social and commercial values of golf, says Nancy Oliver, who started the first chapter of the Executive Women's Golf League two years ago in Palm Beach, Fla.

Ms. Oliver, a marketing executive, had a simple motive behind organizing that first group. She was embarrassed that she'd specialized in golf marketing for 15 years, yet didn't know the first thing about playing the game.

"I was embarrassed about taking lessons, so I thought that if I could get a bunch of other women together, I wouldn't be so self-conscious," Ms. Oliver says. "I just wanted to blend in."

With the help of a golf pro, she organized an eight-week clinic that attracted nearly 30 women. The clinic attracted news coverage, and soon Ms. Oliver was getting calls from all over the country from women who wanted to start their own leagues.

She got so many calls, in fact, that she put her marketing business on hold and started devoting her days to the league. She now produces a newsletter, a line of logo-emblazoned products such as balls, visors and shirts, and promotes regional league meetings. Nationally, the league now has about 3,200 members in 50 cities (including Baltimore); almost every week, another city starts a chapter, Ms. Oliver says.

The timing is right, says Becky Powell, a Dallas public relations executive and golf enthusiast.

Ms. Powell tried to start a businesswomen's golf league in Dallas a few years ago, but it foundered. She couldn't get enough women interested to keep it going.

But when she and others tried again about a year ago, starting a Dallas chapter of the Executive Women's Golf League, it was an immediate success. The Dallas group now has more than 200 members.

In Fort Worth, local organizers were pleased when, with little publicity, 30 women showed up for the kickoff luncheon and round of golf in late August. A few, including Ms. Wolfe and Ms. Ellis, had never played golf before, but most were more $l experienced golfers.

Jeanne Deinert, who started playing golf with her husband several years ago, helped launch the new league because she found it hard to find other women for golf outings.

"Men will go out to a course on a weekend and say, 'I'm here, do you have any threesomes you can hook me up with?' " Ms. Deinert says. "Women don't do that."

This creates a Catch-22, Ms. Deinert says. Women are often more reluctant to play as beginners, since they find it harder to find partners who play at their level. But to be able to play in a corporate setting, golfers need practice -- not just in technique, but in the etiquette and rules of the game.

"I was finding that these women are very secure in their respective [careers], but they were very insecure on a golf course," says Ms. Oliver. "It wasn't just knowing which club to use, but the proper etiquette. Am I supposed to tip this guy? How much? How do I know whether I can play through?"

And while it sounds like a cliche, Ms. McReynolds acknowledges, a decent golf game can aid business relationships. Not only can golfers make contacts on the course or in the clubhouse after a round, but having golf as an interest gives women a topic of conversation with new clients.

"If you're in a business meeting with men you've just met and you're talking about your kids, they're probably not going to be interested," Ms. McReynolds says. "You start talking about birdies and eagles and you get their attention."

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