WHEN PEONY CHOI Kai-ping established Hong Kong's first Chinese-language golf publication in 1994, the media professional had barely stepped on a fairway. Advertising clients were constantly asking her how she could run the monthly Golf Digest and not play the game herself. 'I couldn't stand it after a few months,' she says of her clients' constant jibes. Eventually, Choi picked up a golf club. 'I found that I loved this game, once I started.' The city's golf courses have provided Hong Kong businessmen with an informal setting to make contacts and discuss business deals for decades. As more women take on senior roles in the business world, many are realising the importance of networking outside the boardroom. Eager to get a slice of the action, women are taking to golf as a way to boost their social and business connections. The number of women golfers playing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Kau Sai Chau public course near Sai Kung has increased dramatically since it opened in 1995. Head of golf operations Cameron Halliday says women now account for one in four of all golfers on the greens. 'We've got a lot of regular female golfers who play here every week - sometimes more than once a week,' he says. 'It's on the increase, and I think it probably will continue to be.' The City Golf Club driving range in Tsim Sha Tsui reports similar growth. According to former manager Vincent Leung, who was in charge of club's operations for the past four years, women represented less than 10 per cent of users at the range in 2001. Today, more than one in five golfers is a woman. To cater for the demand, the club holds weekly lunch and coaching sessions run by a female coach. 'Every year [the number of female golfers] is increasing like crazy,' Leung says. With female golf professionals such as Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie and Karrie Web achieving celebrity status, the game has come a long way since the days when women were barred from playing at certain courses and had to adhere to strict dress codes. However, after working in golfing publications for more than 10 years, Choi says she has found there's still a need to support women golfers. 'A lot of my friends were saying it was difficult to find a girl buddy to play with, and difficult to find a golf club [that caters for women],' she says. Some women take up the sport after seeing their husbands spend hours on the golf course, and spouses with different levels of skill may find it less enjoyable to play together. Joining a female group can give women the opportunity to play with people of a similar standard, Choi says. To help female golfers connect with like-minded women and promote the sport, Choi founded the China-Hong Kong Executive Women's Golf Association (EWGA) three years ago. The non-profit organisation now has more than 100 members, most of whom are in their 30s and work in the banking and finance sector. Wendy Tsang, a senior marketing director for American Express, personifies the new breed of golfers. Since she took up the sport seven years ago, as a way to have fun with her family, she has become an avid player. She often spends weekends in Shenzhen, where she will play up to two rounds of 18 holes in two days. The sport provides an enjoyable respite from the pressures of work, says Tsang, who often works 12-hour days at her Admiralty office. 'I think it's the outdoor element and it's good to get away for a couple of hours,' she says. 'It's good to relax.' Tsang says that although major business deals still take place in the office, the greens can provide an informal backdrop to discuss opportunities or to wrap up a deal. 'It's not the most important determining factor [in doing business], but it definitely helps,' she says. The more leisurely pace of the game favours socialising. 'A normal business meeting might last an hour,' Choi says. 'There's no chance for you to talk about anything personal. A golf game lasts four to five hours, and in this time you can see the personality of your golf partner. This is very good for networking. On the golf course, after you discuss business, you have time to talk about yourself and get to know each other more. It helps to build relationships. You can have more time to explore new business opportunities.' Both mind and body benefit from the exercise, Choi says. 'On the one side, [golf] helps you physically improve your health. It also helps you train your mindset because if you want to play well, you have to keep an even temper. It helps to improve your manners,' she says with a laugh. Every fortnight the association holds complimentary golf clinics at which members receive tips from a volunteer female coach at City Golf Club. Tournaments are held every quarter - the next will be in Zhuhai on September 17. This year's major annual tournament is scheduled for December at Long Island, Dongguan. The rise in the number of female golfers also translates into a burgeoning retail opportunity. Sales of women's clothing and accessories have increased in recent years at Swing, a golf-apparel store that opened in 1999 in Causeway Bay. Owner Ricky Yue says that most of his customers are businesswomen or housewives in their 30s and 40s. 'I think that really comes back to affordability and affluence,' Yue says. 'In that age bracket, you get women who can afford to spend more.' For Jannie Luk, a senior vice-president at BNP Paribas Private Bank, playing golf was initially a way to socialise with friends. 'I started six years ago because some of my friends were playing. They were very keen, so I thought I'd try it too.' With her busy schedule, she tries to fit in a round of golf 'every other week', usually at the Kau Sai Chau course, and competes in friendly tournaments. 'It's always good to meet people in a golf game,' she says. 'There are four people in an 18-hole game and it takes at least four hours to finish, so you get a lot of time to chat.'