NOT HAVING SPENT much time on golf courses, I can understand how you might feel if a friend, or worse yet, a business associate, comes up to you and says, "Let's play golf!"

"Let's not!" you may want to reply.

The prospect of chasing a small ball over a vast field of decapitated grass can make you fear for your sanity, your reputation or both. But the game is not as tedious or humiliating as it may seem. Sometimes it's actually fun.

Don't believe me? I don't blame you. Many novice golfers, confronted with umpteen rules of etiquette and far too many clubs to choose from, feel as awkward as a teen-ager on a first date. Mastering the subtleties -- not to mention the strokes -- does take time. Fortunately, you can learn from the mistakes of others. Not to be a martyr about it, but the truth is, I went golfing and made a fool of myself so you won't have to.

To accompany me on my first foray onto the planet Golf, I chose attorney Linda Stoick. Like many reluctant golfophobes, Linda told herself she needed to learn the game so she could hobnob with clients who spend their Wednesdays on the fairways. Secretly, she suspected the game might also be fun.

Muffin Spencer-Devlin, an eight-year veteran of the women's professional tour, graciously lent us all the appropriate paraphernalia: angora sweaters, knickers, visors, gloves, tees, ball markers and two sets of clubs, including gold putters engraved with "MasterCard International Pro Am Champion" and "J&B Gold Putter Award." She also gave us more than a dozen balls, knowing she'd never see them again.

I wasn't worried about my putting. I fared well enough on miniature golf courses as a kid, tapping the ball through Little Miss Muffett's spider's web or up the ramp into Peter Pumpkin Eater's pumpkin. I was less sure about driving the ball off the tee because my entire driving experience took place during the pre-teen era when I was trying to teach myself to be lefthanded. (It didn't work.) So I showed up an hour early, dressed in Muffin's undeniably suave garb, figuring I'd benefit from some driving practice.

I propped her clubs against a fence and strode authoritatively over to the ball shack, where I could see three shelves lined with steel buckets of bright orange, bright yellow, and white balls. Apparently golf has gone the way of tennis in terms of fluorescence. With deliberate nonchalance, I asked the man behind the counter for a bucket of balls.

"What size?" he asked.

"Size?" I mused, stumped. "Aren't all golf balls the same . . ."

"Bucket, M'am. What size bucket."

So much for savoir faire.

Linda arrived soon afterward, ordered her own bucket of balls, and we hurriedly exchanged lessons.

"What do you know about the golf swing?"

"Keep your left arm straight. What do you know?"

"Keep your eye on the ball."

"Anything else?"

Nope, nope.

"Simple game, eh?" Nervous laughter.

In Holland they have rules to keep people like us off the course. Before you're allowed to play, you have to prove yourself on the driving range, hitting eight out of 10 balls 100 yards in a fairly straight direction. Luckily this is America, home of the brash. We spent an hour determining that we are not, in fact, eligible to play Dutch golf, and, undaunted, headed for the first tee.

While waiting our turn, I taught Linda some things I'd learned from conversations with teaching pros and other golf authorities.

"Because courses are so crowded, speed is of the essence. Take your time lining up your shot, but then hustle down the fairway. And if the people behind you catch up, let them pass. Just like traffic."

"Got it," said Linda.

"And cover your tracks," I said. "If you rip up the ground with your club, find the toupee of grass you sent sailing and plant it back on top of the bald spot. It's called replacing your divots."

"Anything else?"

"Take lessons. Everyone I talked with said to take lessons first."

I had also learned that women golfers have a terrible reputation. Male club members complain incessantly that women dilly-dally on their way down the fairway, lose their balls, hack up the ground and gab too much.

"Women ought to be as concerned with their golf game as they are with their appearance," Joe Dudley, a board member of the Almaden County Club in San Jose, California, told me. (Luckily for me we were talking on the phone, so he couldn't see my carefully coordinated costume.)

Dudley admitted that "men talk a lot too," and "men don't replace their divots either," but stereotypes are stubborn. Some clubs, such as prestigious Burning Tree in Bethesda, exclude women altogether; some even forbid wives to drop off their husbands at the clubhouse entrance.

Just before we teed off, in any case, we realized they'd added another twosome to our twosome. The men, a former instructor of golf in the Army and a Japanese book salesman, suggested that Linda go first. She told them we were novices, as if that wouldn't soon be obvious, placed her ball carefully on a tee, swung her club, and whiffed the air. She whiffed again, and again. Soon I was in hysterics -- somewhere between laughing and crying -- but the Army golfer calmed me down a bit by offering generously, "There's a first time for everyone." Eventually Linda shoved the ball in the general direction of the flag.

My turn. Now despite what I said about our poor driving range performance, I had actually managed to send a few balls out toward the 150-yard marker, and had enjoyed watching them soar. It's impossible to launch a tennis ball, racquet ball, or any other ball I can think of into the sky like that; I had begun to understand where the words "birdie" (one under par) and "eagle" (two under) come from. Despite what they say about business deals and exercise and the beauty of the course, the truth is that the obsession comes from the simple pleasure of watching a small ball soar, and knowing it was you who launched it.

"When you hit a ball square on the clubface and it takes off, rising and rising on the wind," says Spencer-Devlin, "it's goosebump time."

So I stepped up to the tee with expectations. I adjusted my visor, screwed a bright white tee into the ground, balanced my ball carefully on top of it, swung, connected, and watched the ball hop away like a frightened rabbit, landing in the woods to my left. More hysteria. Ha ha ha. Oh, isn't golf funny.

After each of the men sent balls flying down the fairway (they graciously refrained from gloating), we packed our clubs and headed holeward. Rules state that the person farthest from the hole takes the next shot. The catch is, she has to find her ball first. I had watched it plunk down in the tall grass near a cypress tree, but after much rummaging with my 7-iron, it was still nowhere to be found. The next foursome on the tee started shouting at me, motioning me onward.

"Wow, golfers really are in a hurry," I thought, frantically searching. I was getting ready to pull another ball from my bag when they shouted again. This time I realized they were simply pointing me toward my ball. I hastily hacked at it until my ball and I were safely out of the woods (so that's where that expression comes from), and plodded, severely humbled, toward the green. When I finally tapped my ball into the hole and Linda cheerfully asked what my score was, I realized I'd forgotten to keep track.

It went on like that. I lost one ball in a tree (it never came down); Linda lost one on the fairway (you'll have to ask her). My high point was scoring four on a par three (that's a "bogey"), my low point was driving four consecutive balls into a lake.

I hesitate to even mention this for fear of generating letters from irate golfophiles, but one of us, who shall remain nameless, did commit a major faux pas by rolling her cart over a green. It wasn't a sit-down cart, just the wire two-wheeler that holds one set of clubs, and, as our nonheroine noticed as she tentatively began rolling it across the green, it didn't seem to damage it. In her defense, let me say that beginners though we were, we did racewalk down the fairway, we did replace our divots, and we even fluffed up the putting green with a device called a divot tool. It looks like one of those things you stick in the end of corn on the cob. (This is amazing, but true: the simple act of a ball landing on the green mars it. One must then approach the dented grass and lift it gently back into its upright position.)

The people behind us -- the ones who had so kindly pointed to my ball before -- now began yelling in earnest. "Get that cart off the green!" was the essence of their message, but it had more adjectives in it.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a very ungolflike interchange, during which the men in my foursome defended me (okay, it was me) against the oncoming foursome of angry putting-green protectors. Later the Army golfer explained it to me.

"The most important thing in golf is etiquette," he said patiently.

"I know," I said, "I'm very sorry . . ."

"And that's what they violated by yelling at you like that. I would have taken you aside and told you quietly."

So, at least according to him, consideration for others takes precedence over caring for the course. Not everyone feels that way, however, so from then on I tried to keep both in mind.

We had planned to play nine holes, but when we came to the end of the first nine, we decided to play the "back nine" as well. The reason: We were having fun. Linda provided endless entertainment with her driving pattern: whiff, whiff, connect. And she sank one putt we figured must have been at least 20 (if not 30 or 40) feet. I did get to watch a few of my own balls fly like birds, if not birdies, and we got a general sense of which clubs to use when (the longer the shot, the lower the number). I'm not going to tell you my score.

The other reason we wanted to keep playing is that golf courses are beautiful. Grass is as green as a child's crayoned picture. Wind draws fingerlike lines on the ponds (where thousands of golf balls have silently drowned). Treetops peer down at you from their wobbly heights as if to watch (or, perchance, to laugh). Golf is a silent sport: no telephones, no children, no printers. One is tempted to whisper, as television commentators do. Reverence is the norm.

So is space. When you hear golfers complain about crowded courses, keep in mind that they speak an arcane language. Courses are not crowded in any normal sense, like airports or parties. You can play 18 holes on a "crowded" course and see only a dozen people, most of them so far away you can't make out the plaid in their shorts.

If you're convinced, coerced, or just plain game, the best place to begin your golf career is with a lesson. (Do as I say, not as I did.) Most public courses have teaching pros on staff (they should be PGA or LPGA-certified, preferably Class A). For $20-$40 per half-hour, less for groups, a pro will teach you how to grip and swing a club, what a pitching wedge is for, and other essentials. Even one lesson can make a world of difference.

Golf is the quintessential individual sport, but you don't have to feel alone out there. To find some partners your own speed, call the public courses and ask about beginners' or singles' groups. Private clubs require far too large of an investment for a beginner -- the best ones charge a $15,000 initiation fee -- and they might not let you in anyway. Some routinely exclude various groups of people, such as women, blacks, Jews or gentiles.

"Golf is incredibly prejudiced against women, but it's just as bad for other groups," says Robin McMillan, a senior editor of Golf magazine. "Everything that the Civil Rights Amendment says you can't discriminate against -- race, color, creed -- golf junks all that. It's very sad."

Some progressive clubs do have "executive" times and "family" times that replace "ladies" and "men's" times so women execs can cash in on the lunch hours usually re served for men. But according to Barbra Crawford-O'Brien, the LPGA's 1986 Teaching Pro of the Year, "It's going to be tough to change golf. Men aren't going to do it. Women need to get on boards of the clubs, start making the bylaws, and start making regulations about who plays when."

If these things offend you or exclude you, forget the stuffy clubs and head for a public course, where everyone is welcome. Their scenery is plenty pretty and they're infinitely cheaper -- on public courses you pay $3 to $20 per round. Despite everything I've said about snootiness, most of the golfers you'll come across will be friendly, helpful or at the very least, polite.

"Golf is like a cocktail party," says Linda Bunker, sports psychologist and co-author of Golf: Better Practice for Better Play. "How you behave is of utmost importance."

Some of this politesse will come to you naturally: Congratulate your opponents when they hit a nice shot, don't talk while others are hitting, and take care not to bonk other players on the head as they're walking down the fairway. ("Fore!")

You can learn more avanced golf etiquette from the rule book, available in all pro shops. Examples: Don't walk across another person's line of play, and allow the person with the best score on the previous hole to tee off first on the first hole (that's called honors.) "Winter rules" state that if your ball lands on rough terrain (and it will) you may move it onto a smoother surface nearby without taking a penalty stroke. Novices use winter rules year-round, but to do so without first obtaining permission from your playing partners is a major breach of etiquette.

Learning the lingo of the links will also help you feel in with the in-crowd. A bunker is a sand trap. A dogleg is an angled fairway. If you see a sign saying "No Mulligans," it doesn't mean the club discriminates against a particular family. It means that if you hit a dud on your first shot off the first tee, you can't take it over. If you see no signs, ask your playing partners if they'd mind if you take a Mulligan. (Some say the term originated with a slow starter named David Mulligan; others say it comes from the sentiment, "I'd like to take 'em all again.")

Playing golf will not provide as good of a workout as aerobics or basketball, but it's actually somewhat strenuous (you'll walk five miles playing 18 holes -- even farther if you're a lousy player), and it can certainly be challenging and rewarding. So get yourself a visor and go for it. Beats hitting balls into Peter Pumpkin Eater's pumpkin any day.

Marian Burton Nelson, a Washington writer and editor, is working on a book about professional women athletes. A DOZEN PLACES TO PLAY

You're in luck: Washington is a great place for golf. Reservations are rarely necessary, green fees are reasonable, and the weather -- well, courses do stay open all year.

Here are 12 local courses that are particularly good for beginners. That means lessons are usually offered, clubs are usually available for rental, and the terrain is not so steep, wooded, watery or sand-trappy that you're likely to go home in tears. All of the listed courses have a pro shop, a snack bar, a putting green, rental clubs (except Falls Road), and rental carts (both sit-down and you-haul unless otherwise noted).

If you're so eager to play you don't want to take the time to read my list, I'll save you the trouble and say: Go to East Potomac Park (Hains Point). It is the best novice course.

IN THE DISTRICT

EAST POTOMAC PARK --

(Hains Point), East Potomac Park SW. 863-9007. Weekdays: $3.50 for 9 holes, $6 for 18. Weekends: $4 and $7. No reservations; 18- and 9-hole courses; driving range; lessons offered. Says pro Dave Leese: "This is the finest course you'll ever play if you're a beginner 'cause you can't get in any trouble." The people's course: Everyone hangs out to chat on the clubhouse steps, and not a snooty word is heard. No tree-lined fairways or deer to make you ooh and ah, but the Potomac is scenic from some spots, and it's relatively easy to deposit the ball in the hole, which is the point, after all. Plus it's cheap. LANGSTON GOLF COURSE --

2600 Benning Rd. NE. 379-8638. Weekdays: $3.50 for 9 holes, $6 for 18; $2.75 and $5.25 for seniors. Weekends: $4 and $7. No reservations necessary; 18 holes; driving range; no lessons. Back nine is better for beginners; a fine course as long as they don't convert it to a Redskins stadium.

ROCK CREEK PARK GOLF COURSE --

16th and Rittenhouse NW. 723-9832. Weekdays: $3.50 for 9, $6 for 18. Weekends: $4 and $7. No reservations; 18 holes; no driving range; lessons offered. Try this one after you've reclassified yourself as an advanced beginner. Forget the roller-coastery back nine (the 17th hole is nicknamed Cardiac Hill). The front nine's rather mountainous in places, too, but there it is, in the middle of the park -- affordable, accessible and not so terrible, really, if you like a challenge.

VIRGINIA

BURKE LAKE GOLF CENTER --

7315 Ox Rd., Fairfax Station. 323-6601. Weekdays: $4.50 for 9, $8 for 18. Weekends: $5.50 and $9. Reservations accepted on weekends only for foursomes; 18 holes; lighted driving range; lessons offered; pullcarts only. This par-three course was designed for beginners, and scenic Burke Lake is nearby. The fairways boast huge ducks, Canada geese and some "weird birds" no one can identify.

GREENDALE GOLF COURSE --

and Golf Course -- 7900 Lee Hwy., Falls Church. 573-0443. Weekdays: $6; $3 for juniors and seniors (under 18 and over 59). Weekends: $7; $350 juniors and seniors. Winter special: play all day any day for the weekday rate, December through February. Reservations on weekends, must be groups of four; 9 holes; no driving range; no lessons offered. A short course, particularly unintimidating. The park also offers 18 holes of minigolf, 8 tennis courts, 2 basketball courts, and several picnic areas in case you decide golf just isn't your game.

PINECREST GOLF COURSE --

6600 Little River Tpk., Annandale. 941-1061. Weekdays: $6; $3 for juniors and seniors. Weekends: $7; $3.50 for juniors and seniors. Reservations on weekends; 9 holes; driving cage; no lessons offered. This is an executive course, which means that a busy executive can play a round of nine at lunch time and still get back to work in time to, say, leave early and miss rush-hour traffic. Executive courses are good for beginners. But avoid lunchtime.

MARYLAND

BOWIE GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB --

7420 Laurel-Bowie Rd. 262-8141. Weekdays: $11. Weekends: $13. For those fees you can play as many holes as you like: 9, 18, 36, 11, or whatever. The club is semiprivate, which means Bowie-goers also have the option of becoming members, for an annual fee of $600 for individuals, $700 for couples. Reservations on weekends and holidays; 18 holes; irons-only driving range; lessons offered. Pro Fred Ryder takes pride in the fact that Bowie kept watering through the summer drought when other courses gave up. And 500 young trees have been planted on the fairly flat fairways in the past five years. FALLS ROAD GOLF COURSE --

1800 Falls Rd., Potomac, 299-5156. Weekdays: $7 for 9 holes, $11.50 for 18; $2 less for seniors. Weekends: $8 and $13. No reservations necessary; 18 holes; irons-only driving range; lessons offered. Fairly flat, no willowy trees or placid lakes to get in your way. Surrounded by a scenic housing development.

NEEDWOOD GOLF COURSE --

6724 Needwood Rd., Derwood, 948-1075. Weekdays: $5.50 for 9 holes, $10 for 18; $3.25 and $4.75 for juniors and seniors. Weekends: $6.25 and $11.50; $4.50 and $8 for juniors and seniors. Reservations optional; 18- and 9-hole courses; driving range; lessons offered. The nine-holer's an "executive course" (see Pinecrest, above).

PAINT BRANCH GOLF COURSE --

4690 University Blvd., College Park. 935-0330. Weekdays: $4.50; a dollar off for juniors and seniors before 3:30. Weekends: $5. No reservations; 9 holes; no driving range; lessons offered. Flat fairways make the course excellent for beginners; afternoons are least busy times.

SLIGO CREEK GOLF COURSE --

9701 Sligo Creek Pkwy., Silver Spring. 585-6006. Weekdays: $5.25 for 9 and $10 for 18. Weekends: $5.75 and $10.50. No reservations; 9 holes (with two tees and flags at each hole, you can make it 18); driving cage; no lessons offered. Lush trees, well-manicured greens, creeks running across 6 (or 12, depending on how you count them) fairways.