TUCSON — My first golf lesson, from a macho pro at a Caribbean resort, was so miserable that I didn't play again for five years.
I wilted under the broiling sun and the scornful gaze of my instructor, who ordered me to do this, do that--rarely disguising his disgust at having to teach a nervous neophyte instead of a real golfer who could appreciate his pithy pointers. I ditched the sport faster than I could yell "Fore!"
But then I married a man who believes that a bad day on the golf course is better than a good day just about anywhere else. David wanted to play as a pair wherever a tee time could be scored--especially on vacation.
With much pessimism, I reluctantly tried golf again last May. This time, however, I chose a female instructor at a Tucson resort program designed for and by women. The difference knocked the chip off my shoulder and into my shots. Three days of lessons and one round of golf at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, with its two championship 18-hole courses nestled in a valley of the Santa Catalina Mountains, ignited my enthusiasm for the game.
The National Golf Foundation estimates 27 million people play the sport nationwide, and 10 million of those folks do so while on trips. Forty percent of all beginners are women--at 1.2 million last year, the fastest-growing segment in the sport.
For many female novices like me, though, golf has seemed like an intimidating sport dominated by men. Only after more resorts began offering programs specifically for us--with instructors (often women) who understand our learning style, our body shape, our sensibilities--was I willing to give it another shot.
I chose the Lodge at Ventana Canyon for its beginner golf schools. A three-day program called Women to the Fore was an easygoing introduction to the sport, not the week of killer training offered at some places.
On my first morning at the lodge, instructor Allison Carter and I found a spot among a dozen other golfers on the practice range.
"Women tend to like more explanation, a more supportive teaching style and a more social environment than men do," said Carter, a Ladies Professional Golf Assn. veteran with a decade of teaching experience. "Male teachers seldom understand that more nurturing approach because guys just want to be told what to do and then left to do it."
Carter's students range from teens to seniors and include beginners like me, who want to play 18 holes with their spouse without embarrassment. Some are businesswomen who see golf as a networking tool or homemakers looking for exercise in the fresh air.
I grimaced as Carter pushed a little white tee into the ground near my toes--a flash of deja vu that sent dread from my stomach to a knot in my throat. "You're going to do fine," she assured me. "It's just a game."
Armed with a bucket of yellow range balls, a rental bag full of clubs ($45 for the duration of the program) and a picture book of top women golfers with perfect form as they swung and followed through, Carter patiently took me through the basics.
She taught me the difference in clubs: the big, low-to-the-ground, flat-faced drivers, used for power; the pitching and sand wedge, tilted upward for loft; the lightweight putter. I learned to stand with my legs hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, shoulders relaxed. I held the club with my left hand curled around the handle, three knuckles showing on top, and my right palm nesting over the left thumb.
I practiced subtle sweeping motions, trying to get my rhythm down pat for short-distance chipping and putting. By Day 2, I advanced to full swings that eventually would send the ball zipping over the fairway (I hoped).
"Golf is about swinging the club, not just about hitting the ball," Carter said again and again.
"As a woman golfer, you have the disadvantage of weaker upper body and arm strength than men, but the advantage of better flexibility and balance. Unfortunately many teachers focus on an ideal swing that doesn't take those factors into account."
By the end of the second day, I was beginning to feel pretty cocky with a club--until Carter played a video of me in action.
I looked like an oaf: lurching side to side, jerking the club backward and forward as if I were swatting flies. It didn't help that Carter also had filmed herself--as graceful as a gazelle. She was a ballet of perfect swings, sending the ball in a lovely arc deep down the fairway.
It was time, nonetheless, to test my game. Some teaching programs don't bring novice golfers onto the greens and fairways. Women to the Fore takes a different stance: Just do it. No matter how badly one plays, a golfer still can enjoy the Lodge at Ventana Canyon's swaths of lush green fairway, patches of glistening lake hazard and curls of gritty sand trap. Carved out of the mountains, the course incorporates natural rock formations, mesquite groves and stands of prickly pear, ocotillo and cholla cactus.