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Women hold potential for golf's growth

Maureen Mahoney has seen the look many times. When she and one or two friends report to the starter's booth near the first tee, men waiting there roll their eyes and give an expression that unmistakably says, "I hope they're not playing with us."

"Usually, by the end of the round, he has his attitude changed," said Mahoney, a Rockville Centre resident and 10 handicap who made a hole-in-one on a par 4 this year. "We're trying, one golfer at a time."

The golf industry is looking to move more quickly than that. With the number of rounds played having grown stagnant and with private clubs and public courses rocked by the economy, everyone in golf is desperately trying to find ways to make the game grow. The answer might be as close as the other side of the dinner table and as simple as putting in some new tees and sprucing up the restrooms on courses.

Women have become one of golf's great hopes, which is why the PGA of America and LPGA and other organizations have scheduled many promotions and named June as Women's Golf Month. "I am optimistic about this," said Pam Swensen, chief executive of the 18,000-member Executive Women's Golf Association, another of the organizing groups. "With where the industry is right now, this is one of the avenues that will allow it to grow."

That will mean getting more women interested in golf and getting golf facilities more interested in attracting women golfers. Swensen said that will entail everything from creating a welcoming environment at the bag drop to making women's equipment more available and prominent in pro shops to setting up women's tees differently to having clean restrooms.

"That might sound trivial, but it's not," Swensen said on the phone from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., adding that restrooms ranked high in an EWGA survey on what women golfers want.

A study by the National Golf Foundation said that only 22 percent of golfers are women. Swensen said that her group's data indicate the number is closer to 20, which means there is room for expansion. She said that people in the golf business have become more receptive to women's ideas, such as those on course setup. Even from the current front tees, most women can't reach most par-4 greens in two shots.

So there is a frustration over not being able "to play the game the way it's supposed to be played," said Swensen, a 25 handicap who took up golf 16 years ago when she was a NYNEX executive and thought it would help her in business. She added that the EWGA would like to see two sets of women's tees on each hole, with courses playing 4,200 from the front. The group also would like to see fairway yardage markers inside 100 yards, which most courses don't have but which many women players could use.

What a person can conclude from those requests is that the women's golf group is advocating mostly minor changes, not a major overhaul. Women golfers do like the game and have been playing it since its earliest days in the U.S.

Swensen is especially proud of the EWGA's Long Island chapter, which is the largest in the country with more than 1,000 members who play matches all over Nassau and Suffolk every week. Mahoney is a member and one of the tournament organizers. She was playing in one of those at Hamlet Wind Watch on May 12, "a dreary day," she said that prompted her to use her driver on the 206-yard seventh hole. The shot went in, and she and the rest of her foursome were high-fiving and taking photos.

"Many women who play golf are just as passionate as the male golfer," she said, adding that she took it up only eight years ago during a trip to Florida, where her sister and brother-in-law live on a course. "We watch it on TV, we know who the players are, we know how to play, where to play. We're not just someone who wants to buy those golf outfits."

She also runs a league for about 50 women on Sunday mornings, which might be a glimpse of golf's future. "We play in anything but lightning," she said. "We play in rain, in snow. There are times when we're the only ones on the course. We're serious about golf."

In a business that is looking for new customers, the golf industry likely will become more serious about them.

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