On a cloudless spring Thursday, 32 women from the Harvard Business School crowd into a small classroom at Stow Acres Country Club in Massachusetts. They listen intently as instructor Adrienne Wax explains the rudiments of a game they hope will advance their careers.
"Golf is more about technique than it is about the power of your swing," says the reassuring Ms. Wax, executive vice president of GolfingWomen in East Hampton, N.Y. For two hours, she talks about everything from tees and fairways to sand traps, score cards, clothes, and etiquette. Then everyone moves outdoors for hands-on practice.
The presence of more than 100 business school students at this unusual event reflects a growing recognition among professional women that golf can be an important asset in business, connecting them with colleagues and clients.
"This generation of women just gets it," Wax says. "They have a very clear sense of how to build their careers."
Business reputations are built on a racquetball court or softball diamond as readily as in an executive suite. Yet 41 percent of female executives from Fortune 1000 companies say that lack of access to informal networks curtails their career advancement, according to a study by Catalyst, a businesswomen's research and advisory group. The No. 1 informal network? Golf, the women say.
Yet timidity and fear of embarrassment still keep many professional women from taking up the game. "Women believe they should be as good as the golfers they watch on television," says Leslie Andrews, president of GolfingWomen. "Most people who play aren't very good. They're hackers. Men are fine with that. Women feel you have to be good. That just isn't true."
As a first step toward proficiency, Ms. Andrews accompanies five workshop participants to a practice green to show them how to hold a club.
"If I'm gripping the club correctly, my palms should face each other," she tells the women. "If I look down, I can see the second knuckle of my right hand." The women adjust their grips to match hers. After practicing chip shots, they climb into golf carts and head for a sand trap and a driving range to broaden their skills.
"Where are you supposed to look?" one student asks after hitting a ball. Andrews replies, "Finish your stroke before you look at your shot."
Professional women gained their first organized support on the golf course 14 years ago when 28 business women banded together to form the Executive Women's Golf Association in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
"We said, 'We need to take lessons and learn how to play so we can use it as a business building tool,' " recalls Pam Swensen, executive vice president. Today that fledgling group has grown to 18,000 members in the United States, with 111 chapters in the US and two in Canada. Members include executives, lawyers, accountants, educators, and real estate agents.
Even more encouragement will come June 4, when the golf industry kicks off Women's Golf Week. Nearly 350 facilities around the country will participate, offering complimentary lessons for women of all skill levels. "It really is designed to welcome women into the game, to make them feel this is a sport for them," Ms. Swensen says.
The male-dominated golf industry, she explains, is at a crossroads. Despite an abundance of links around the country - at one time a new golf course was opening every day - the number of people coming into the game is relatively stagnant.
"The market that everyone is now suddenly paying attention to is the women's market," Swensen says. "It's a group that has disposable income."
At the same time, it's a group sometimes hampered by the belief that men do not want them on the golf course. "It's probably true of an older generation," Andrews says. But "that's changing."
Because private clubs are not bound by discrimination laws, gender bias still exists, although golf experts say the situation is getting better. "Some [clubs] say you can't be a member," Wax notes. "Others say you can be a member only if your husband is." Or women can join, but the club might limit them to less desirable tee times.
Still, playing business golf with men is helping to erase barriers. "If a woman shows she's serious about knowing the game, knowing the rules, and keeping up the pace, they'll all be very happy to play with women," Wax says.
In her training programs for women, Hilary Bruggen, president of Strelmark, a business-development firm, offers advice on how to avoid business golf blunders. Unless business golf is planned and played properly, it can actually be detrimental to business.
Two years ago, Ms. Bruggen played in a business golf tournament in Washington, D.C. A woman showed up who had never golfed before. She had rented clubs and said she thought it would be good for networking. "What I didn't say to her was, 'By the end of this round, these men are going to hate you, rather than wanting to do business with you.' "
Bruggen prevented that from happening by taking the woman's shot for her. "I felt both sorry for her and horrified by her bad judgment."
Another blunder involves misunderstanding the purpose of these professional outings. Bruggen has seen women expect to do business on the golf course. She explains that it is a place to build relationships, not cut a deal.
"On the golf course you don't even have to talk about business, but you're learning about that person," Swensen says. "You're sharing a bond."
Players are also forming impressions. "When you play, it tests your patience, tests your honesty, integrity, ethics, your sense of humor, your ability to know the rules," Swensen says. "All of those skills are transferable into a business setting. If someone gets really upset that they hit their ball in a sand trap and throws their clubs, it's just a ball going into a sand trap. If that gets someone excited or angry, how are they going to react in a business setting? If you are constantly making excuses - 'Oh, I left my A game at home' - do you do that in real life too?"
As more women buy golf products, the industry is showing greater interest in them. Golf clothing, for example, is changing dramatically, with many more choices for women. That makes it easier to avoid what Bruggen calls the "girlie look" for business golf outings. On such occasions, she always dresses in navy or black shorts or pants, or khakis with white, yellow, or neutral tops.
Even golf bags send messages. Noting that her bag is black, Bruggen says, "Women sometimes start with these flowery ones, with bees on them. That really puts men off. Flowery skirts are off-putting as well."
On the theory that "you can't start playing golf too early," Bruggen tells parents that one of the best things they can do for a daughter is to encourage her to golf. Most country clubs are children-friendly now, she finds - a dramatic shift from the past. Getting on a golf team for a college might help a daughter to win a scholarship. Later, in the work world, it could help her advance.
"Women who are not golfing are choosing to neglect probably one of the most powerful business development tools there is," Bruggen says. "Golf eliminates gender barriers, hierarchical and generational barriers, and barriers from religion and race. Golf levels the playing field - no pun intended."