The demand for office space and houses may be way down in the Washington area, but the craving for golf courses has never been greater.

Twenty-six golf courses are planned or under construction in the metropolitan area, with 21 of them sited in outer suburbs such as Prince William and Anne Arundel counties, according to area planning and recreation departments.

Residents are pressuring local governments to add to the 22 existing municipal courses, and developers see golf courses as a way to make their residential or resort complexes stand out in a weak real estate market.

If all the planned courses are built, Washington-area golfers will have one-third more options than the 96 existing courses.

The motive behind the golf course mania is simple: Washingtonians are taking up golf in droves, and they're running out of places to play.

"It's basic economics. The Washington area is undergolfed," said Cate Magennis, director of development for the Xerox Corp.'s 2,300-acre planned community around a golf course in Loudoun County. The Washington area ranks 294 out of 319 metropolitan areas in golf courses per resident, according to the National Golf Foundation. With a ratio of 1,466 residents per golf hole, Washington-area courses are 36 percent more crowded than the national average.

Most of the 51 existing private clubs have four- to six-year waiting lists, and the 22 municipal and 23 privately owned facilities open to the public have long lines.

Fairfax County recently installed a computer reservation system for its eight municipal courses because people were lining up at 3 a.m. to sign up for tee times, said Paul Engman, golf course section supervisor.

Anne Arundel County's only municipal golf course receives 1,000 calls for tee times daily, three times as many as it can handle, and a group of golfers there got so frustrated they decided to build their own club.

"Often it takes five or six hours to play a game," said Gilbert L. Hardesty, president of the soon-to-open $11 million Old South Country Club. "The folks in south Anne Arundel deserve another course."

The Washingon area's growing interest in golf mirrors a nationwide boom. Last year, 24.7 million Americans played at least one round of golf, 2.5 million more than the year before, and 9.6 million more than in 1980, according to the National Golf Foundation, which collects golf-related statistics.

Baby boomers and retirees are picking up the sport in unprecedented numbers, a fact golf players attribute to the United States' aging but more athletically inclined population.

"Jogging was a big thing until you heard about people with bad knees," said Craig Day, assistant golf pro at Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club in Ellicott City. "A nice relaxing walk on soft grass is going to give you excellent exercise."

Women and minorities too are entering this previously white male domain. About 40 percent of last year's new golfers were female and 5.5 percent were black, although the sport remains 78 percent male and 97 percent white, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Golf course building has not kept pace with the golfers. In the last 20 years, the number of golfers increased 121 percent, but the number of courses increased only 27 percent.

The National Golf Foundation says that 400 courses need to be built annually throughout the decade to meet the growing interest in the sport.

Washington area developers are only too happy to oblige. Private companies are building 19 courses, while the public sector has seven planned.

"Often {a golf course} becomes a centerpiece for development and enhances the value of real estate" around it, said William A. Moran, president of NV Land Inc., which is suing Fairfax County for the right to build a 1,200-acre golf project near Clifton, and plans a 1,300-acre Prince William development with a 36-hole course designed by golf champion Jack Nicklaus.

Golf courses also often satisfy local governments' open space requirements in rezoning agreements.

"In cases where you have open space requirements, {a golf course} is something that can be open space and be an additional attraction for the property," said Randy L. Raudabaugh, of Friendswood Development, which plans to build houses around golf courses in Anne Arundel and Prince William.

Developers have found building courses in the District and inner suburbs very difficult.

High prices of land and the paucity of 200-acre tracts necessary to build the average 18-hole course have driven most golf course builders to the outer counties.

Environmental constraints also limit the options. Most Washington-area golf courses need extra space for ponds -- which also serve as water hazards -- to trap rain for irrigation, and new stream and wetland preservation laws make some land unusable.

The current building boom won't solve the overcrowding problems, golf professionals warn. Most of the new courses will either be private clubs -- with $10,000 to $15,000 initiation fees and monthly dues in the $200 range -- or expensive public courses where daily greens fees will push $50 or more compared with $15 at municipal courses.

"Our users will only use {high-profile courses} once or twice a year. It won't relieve our {municipal} courses," said Fairfax's Engman.

GOLF COURSES IN D.C. AREA

Jurisdiction................Existing...............Planned

Anne Arundel County............11.....................4

Arlington County................2.....................0

Bowie...........................1.....................0

College Park....................1.....................0

D.C.............................4.....................0

Fairfax County.................25.....................2

Howard County...................2.....................4

Loudoun County..................5.....................5

Manassas Park...................0.....................1

Montgomery County..............25.....................1*

Prince George's County.........13.....................2

Prince William County...........5.....................7

Rockville.......................2.....................0

NOTE: Unlisted cities in the metropolitan area do not have golf courses.

*Montgomery County information is incomplete because the county does not keep track of planned private golf courses.

SOURCES: County planning, parks and recreation departments.