Golf attracts millions of new players annually. In addition to the thrill of bringing clubhead square to ball, the game also offers camaraderie, competition and exercise (walking 18 holes is the equivalent of a three- to five-mile hike).

And yet, for every individual who takes up the game, another one walks away. According to National Golf Foundation statistics, the number of U.S. golfers has remained around 25 million for the past decade.

Reasons for abandoning the sport are well documented, with the time it takes to play the major culprit. Those who can play only on weekends, traditionally the busiest times at area courses, should expect a five-hour round at many facilities. Add an hour or more for travel, warm-up and cool down (post-round beverages).

It is often possible to knock 30 to 60 minutes off an average round on weekdays when fewer players take to the links. And the cost to play golf, as it is at ski slopes, is usually cheaper Monday through Thursday.

The second major reason for giving up the game is lack of early success. A game that looks so simple on television can quickly become too frustrating to continue for first-timers, who often have major problems getting the ball into the air and advancing it in anything resembling a straight line.

The quickest path to improved play is taking a lesson from a certified professional. Individual lessons begin at about $35 for a half hour. Group lessons are generally less expensive.

Among some of the top teaching professionals in Southern Maine are Paul Piveronas (781-2890) at The Woodlands Club, who has worked with PGA Tour players; Scott Mayer (838-5731) of Mayer’s School of Golf, at Nonesuch River GC; and Mal Strange (829-5100), a member of the Maine Golf Hall of Fame, at Toddy Brook. Each has earned “Teacher of the Year” accolades at state and regional levels. The key is to identify an instructor whose teaching style matches the player’s learning style.

Group programs targeted at beginners are available at many facilities such as “Wine and Nine” for women at Val Halla (829-2225) in Cumberland, or for youngsters like The First Tee complex at Riverside GC (286-1911) that abuts the Portland facility’s South Course.

Whatever the choice, lessons from a qualified instructor are the surest and quickest path to improvement.

Once basic techniques of grip, posture, and swing are understood, new players should budget time at a practice facility. Good habits must be repeated. Bad ones inevitably creep into the swing. Since putts account for more than 40 percent of strokes on average, time spent on the putting green is well invested.

Golf equipment can be very affordable or very expensive. Thanks to a tough economy, pro shops and retailers are cutting deals.

Getting fitted for clubs that suit a player’s particular build and swing is worth the cost. Clubfitting is available through some club professionals. Retailers that carry a broad selection of clubs, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Golf & Ski Warehouse, use indoor hitting cages and computerized equipment to fit clubs.

New players fitted with the right clubs, possessing a sound swing and enjoying some early success on the course will likely find themselves strolling fairways for years to come.