When Christine McInerney decided to leave Manhattan in 1999 and practice law on Long Island instead, it was obvious to her that the Island had a very active golf community. Not only that, it was a big part of how business is done here.

“I wasn’t a golfer, but wanted to be. It looked like fun, and advantageous to my career,” McInerney said. “So I looked into becoming knowledgeable.”

She discovered a national organization called the Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA), and there was no Long Island chapter. So she started collecting other interested women. Thus EWGALI was born, and today more than 600 women belong to the chapter, making it the largest in the country.

The group runs eight leagues, holds tournaments and events, and offers clinics and mentoring programs for novices. McInerney, a partner in the litigation department of Ruskin Moscou Faltischeck, is immediate past president and remains an active board member and advocate. The reasons for her enthusiasm: “You’re meeting other businesswomen, networking, sharing ideas and experiences. And you make terrific friendships. You get to combine business and pleasure.”

While many EWGALI members are corporate executives and professional women, small business owners are also devotees. Tina Panos, who operates a design firm, Panos Graphic Services, is a charter member. She’d played occasionally in the past, but jumped at the chance to improve her game and gain business opportunities.

“It was always the men out there making the deals, and women left back in the office,” Panos said.

Now she plays as often as she can.

“It’s become an important part of my business,” Panos added. “It’s a very relaxing way to look for work or a new client, because you have a common interest.”

It also reinforces existing relationships, Panos said, because “you talk to someone and find out they’re a golfer, and it’s a bond.”

Panos spoke first about the networking benefits of playing with other women. But the golf course also has become an equal-opportunity venue for networking with men, she said.

“I go out and play with my male clients and have no problem, because I’ve developed confidence and knowledge,” Panos said. And she’s met new clients, both male and female, by simply showing up on a public course and being hooked up as part of a foursome.

Other avid golfers come from the not-for-profit sector.

Theresa Regnante, director of development for the Education & Assistance Corp., began playing 12 years ago because she saw an opportunity to be connected to the business world in a different way, she said.

“You tool around the golf course and get to know people, and subsequently you’re invited to play at outings as a guest. It’s fun, you meet a lot of great people, and I’ve been able to expand my success and help charities that need help.

“And it’s something else to talk about with people you already know somewhat.” Regnante added.

Regnante, who is also a board member of the Long Island Fund for Women & Girls, recently discovered that another board member also plays. After getting together on the course, they teamed up to plan a golf fundraising event for the LIFWG next year.

All the women she works with in the not-for-profit world want to learn golf, Regnante said, and will likely uses EWGA clinic programs.

As for the men, their attitude toward women on the golf course has changed.

“Twelve years ago when I showed up at Sunken Meadow and got hooked up with three guys, they looked like, ‘Oh my God, I left home to get away from my wife this morning,'” Regnante said. “But now it’s really different. They look at your equipment, size you up. If your ball goes farther off the first tee, it’s instant respect.”

In fact, the golf world is generally happy about the growing number of women players.

“It’s probably one of the few growth areas in golf,” said Paul Smith, managing editor of Long Island Golfer. “Otherwise the sport is flat right now.”

He sees a growing awareness that “there’s a lot of business done on the golf course, and previously that was mainly exploited by men.”

What makes golf such a great networking tool?

“It has to do with the amount of time you spend with people on the golf course,” McInerney said. “Networking events are usually driven by the event, like listening to a speaker most of the time. When golf is the event itself, you talk to people over a span of time, not pumping them for business, but getting to know them in a social environment.”

And you can learn a lot about people by watching them play golf, she said.

“It’s an insight you don’t easily get in other environments. In golf it comes naturally,” McInerney said.