The steady growth over the last three decades of the multibillion-dollar-a-year golf industry, particularly in the last five years when the economy was supposed to have been in the doldrums, spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs who ventured into the risky business of handicapping golfers by computers.

According to Philip A. Hargis, president of Compu-Golf in Vienna, Va., there are now eight small data-processing firms whose major, if not sole, function is golf handicapping. However, they do not have a lock on the market.

They are competing with about 100 other organizations for a large, clearly defined and expanding market. Other computer firms, some banks and insurance companies, R&D companies and universities with computer time to spare have entered the field on a part-time basis to provide this service either directly to clubs or through state golf associations.

Hargis says, "If you sell one club, you sell about 400 golfers, but if you sell one state golf association, you sell several thousand golfers."

Dan A. Rossi, Executive Director of the National Golf Foundation, Palm Beach, Fla., reports that there are some 12,800 private and public golf courses in the country where players who card 15 or more rounds per year now number 13 million.

In 1979 these golfers played 346 million rounds, and if all their scorecards were faithfully posted in their clubs' handicap systems, a lot of computer time would have been used.

However, not all golfers carry handicaps. It is estimated that of the country's 13 million golfers, about 5.2 million carry handicaps and 3 million of them do so by computer. Since none were being processed by computer just a dozen years ago, the growth in this field is obvious if not phenomenal.

Therefore, the dollar potential is attractive. At the current $3 to $4 fee per player per year, the national gross could reach $15 million to $20 million -- even if not another golfer joins the ranks of handicapped players. But with a new day-by-day (rather than monthly) instant handicap system now on line at a few more dollars per player, the national potential could reach over $31 million and climb as golf continues to expand.

And golf does continue to expand. Golf computer companies never held the belief, as many did, that golf courses were being plowed under to make way for housing developments and shopping centers. New courses in the United States opened at the rate of 220 per year from 1974 to 1979. The number of golfers increased by 250,000 per year during the same period. Present trends indicate that when all figures are in, 1980 will prove to have been another year of growth.

There, too, is the Canadian market -- also growing steadily despite the short season. Available to the computer companies willing to venture northward are Canada's 1,200 public and private courses and 1.2 million players.

This continuing growth is good news and encouragement for the pioneer companies like Hargis' Compu-Golf which survived the first few lean years, ". . . operating for the most part in the red and only recently turning the corner and seeing daylight. We've been competing in a fragmented market with a lot of people jumping in," said Hargis. Most state golf associations, like Virginia's and California's, have entered the business for the revenues it produces to pay staffs and tournament expenses.

Computer specialists like Hargis, with their new ideas, ventured in the early 1970s into the sacred precincts of the nation's pro shops to revolutionize the slow, tedious and frequently inaccurate handicap processing.

By the mid-1970s, small computer handicapping firms had sprung up in several states, notably in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Michigan. They provided updated handicaps on a monthly basis with a high degree of accuracy in a turn-around time of about four days.

Compu-Golf, typical of these small companies, entered this business slowly and cautiously on a part-time basis in the mid-Atlantic region. But now, on a full-time basis, it is serving 250 clubs with 60,000 golfers, 15,000 of whom are women). Its gross this year will be slightly over $120,000, but its potential, Hargis believes, is well beyond that.

Hargis has extended his territory beyond the immediate mid-Atlantic region with clients in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and several New England states. As his company grew, it attracted competitors -- one from as nearby as Reston, Va., where Golf Log, Inc., was founded recently.

Haris, founder and principal stockholder of his company, anticipates new growth in the 80s, ". . . primarily because of our new computer, Datacap Golf Handicap Micro Computer." It is a small, portable general-purpose machine that has been modified especially for golf handicapping. Manufactured by Intertec Data Systems, of Columbia, S.C., this computer will be placed directly into golf clubs on a rental basis, perhaps at about $6 per player per year for clubs with 400 or more players.

"It is no more difficult for the golfers to operate this computer than to dial a telephone," Hargis said. Each golfer posts his own score by punching up his club number and then feeding in the score. The screen immediately displays the golfer's up-to-the-minute handicap.

"It is great for last-minute pairings," Hargis added. "Furthermore, the new computer keeps you honest. For instance, if a nine handicap player tries to post a score over 100, the computer will reject that score."

Some clubs are looking to the machine for the ancillary benefits it offers. While rigged for golf handicapping, its main keyboard can handle the club's monthly billings and mailings if a printer is attached.