Dominion High School's top golfer sat in the driver's seat of the coach's cart, joking with teammates and carrying on as the final foursome walked to the nearby green on the last hole of a recent practice round. Only a ponytail looped through the back of a baseball cap and the player's name -- Sara Hurwitch -- gave away the fact that the Titans' top player is a girl.

Hurwitch not only won the Virginia girls' championship last year, she beat all the boys to win district and regional titles for the Sterling school.

"In the beginning the boys didn't expect her to be that good," Dominion Coach Sean Welsh said. "But last year you could feel they expected her to do as well as she did. [Now] she's just Sara. They don't treat her any differently."

Most high school sports are gender specific in the Washington area, with rare exceptions such as girls competing in football or wrestling or joining a boys' soccer team if a school does not field a girls' team. Golf, on the other hand, has almost always had one team per school, forcing girls to play against boys (with the advantage of being able to play from one tee position closer to the hole).

That could change soon as more girls continue to play high school golf. While Hurwitch and other girls might have stood out from the boys a few years ago, they now are blending in on the course.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls competing in high school golf has nearly tripled in the past 20 years. Locally, the Virginia High School League saw the number of participants in its girls' championship rise by nearly 50 percent last year. The Virginia State Golf Association, which governs amateur golf in the state, usually averages 30 to 35 participants at its junior girls' championship; this year's event drew a record 49 players.

And athletic officials in both Northern Virginia and Maryland are taking steps to encourage growth in the sport. At the same time, the elite girls' golfers appear to be recognized for their talent instead of their gender when they compete with the boys.

"We've had our girls' tournament for probably close to 20 years and would have hoped it would grow faster than it has, but in the last couple years there seems to be more interest in golf for the girls," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "There seems to be momentum in the past few years."

Locally, many high school coaches believe the interest has picked up in part due to standout golfers. Two years ago, Chantilly's Jenny Suh became the first girl to win a Virginia AAA individual title, beating a field of 71 boys. Last year, Northeast High's Stephanie Connelly won her third Maryland girls' championship and Hurwitch went on to win the Virginia girls' championship; both were named All-Mets.

"When people ask if I'm coaching at Dominion and I say yes, they always ask, 'How's that girl doing?' " Welsh said. "I think [Loudoun] County has a poster child for girls' golf in Sara."

Hurwitch had been the only girl on the Dominion team, but two freshmen girls made this year's team. Across the region, girls are dotting starting lineups, including at Severna Park where senior Kelly Lynch this week finished second in the 12-team Anne Arundel Fall Preview Tournament. The rise in participation by girls has increased many teams' depth, and in Fairfax County, some schools have begun fielding girls' golf teams. For now, though, those squads are seen mainly as club-level teams and the top girls continue to compete with the boys.

According to a survey conducted in January for the National Golf Foundation, only 16 percent of junior golfers since 1990 have been female. In 2004, however, female participation spiked to 27 percent. The figure could be a sampling irregularity, the survey said. But it also might show the effect of girls watching young professional stars such as Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer. Golf received a jolt in the late 1990s when Tiger Woods became a household name and some wonder if Wie and Creamer might have a similar effect.

"When you have a kid like Michelle Wie out there looking like a role model, I think it helps to get interest," MPSSAA golf tournament director Jeff Ibex said.

And organizations are trying to meet that interest. The VHSL last year added a tee time so that it would not have to turn away entrants to its girls' championship, which is open to any student attending a Virginia public school regardless of whether she plays for her school team. Consideration is being given to splitting the girls' championship into divisions by school enrollment, as is the case with nearly every other sport the VHSL sponsors, and administrators are anticipating the formation of an entirely separate sport.

"What we're looking at this year is whether [last year's 73 entrants, up from 48 the previous year] was a fluke or whether that will happen again," VHSL assistant director Joyce Sisson said.

In an attempt to give girls more playing opportunities, the VHSL last year allowed girls to play three all-girls matches or tournaments that did not count against the maximum number of contests an athlete can participate in.

Fairfax County last year began allotting a $1,000 stipend for a girls' golf coach at each school. Fairfax then held two nine-hole tournaments for girls only; a third tournament was rained out. Prince William County this year will hold a county championship, including a separate event for girls. Montgomery County also holds girls-only matches to try to give girls not in the starting lineup an extra chance to compete. Montgomery also has a developmental girls-only season in the spring for players who are not on their school's varsity team.

"The biggest thing for these first couple years is to create that interest," said Lake Braddock Athletic Director Mark Martino, who helped organize the tournaments last year. "Some girls may be intimidated by playing with the boys. They may have only played a couple times. This provides them this opportunity to play."

Martino, Welsh and others believe it is only a matter of time before girls' golf becomes its own sport. Meantime, however, the girls continue to play -- and sometimes beat -- the boys.

"There were times when the guys weren't happy about it, but you just deal with it," Hurwitch said. "I'm out there to play golf, not make people happy."

"I think [Loudoun] County has a poster child for girls' golf in Sara," Dominion Coach Sean Welsh said of Sara Hurwitch, above, the Virginia girls' champion.