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Wil-Mar Golf Club in Raleigh, North Carolina: A fun play with a family feel

Jennifer MarioBy Jennifer Mario,
Wil-Mar Golf Club in Raleigh
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Cedars, oaks and maple trees line the fairways at Wil-Mar Golf Club in Raleigh, N.C. (Courtesy of Wil-Mar G.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ask Fran Wilkerson, teaching professional and co-owner of Wil-Mar Golf Club in Raleigh, about Wil-Mar's defining characteristic, and she has a ready answer.

"The atmosphere," she says. "We treat everyone like they're part of our family."

She's right, of course. There's no golf course in the area with more of a family feel than Wil-Mar, which has been owned and operated by the Allen family since it originally opened as a nine-hole course more than 50 years ago.

Wilkerson's father, Bill Allen, originally converted his tobacco land to a golf course when his doctor prescribed more activity for his diabetes. His diabetes wasn't cured, but he was hooked nonetheless. What other game could get him outdoors, give him some exercise and tame his occasional gambling bug?

The one-room family cabin, built in the early 1900s, served as the clubhouse, and Wil-Mar was born. Even the name reflects the course's history, a combination of "William" and Allen's wife's name, "Mary."

Wil-Mar has changed quite a bit since those humble beginnings.

The par-71 course now offers a modern clubhouse, four sets of tees, a full practice range and three putting greens, but it has managed to maintain its unique environment. Players are greeted by name as they enter, a dog races around the clubhouse, and the snack bar -- known as Vicki's Grill -- offers not just hot dogs at the turn but full down-home Southern meals such as meatloaf and chicken and dumplings.

Wilkerson and her brother, Marty Allen, share ownership duties. As an LPGA teaching professional, she handles the golf instruction side of the business, while Allen handles the business operations side. "It's really been a labor of love," said Allen. He may mean that literally, as his sister even got married on the tee box of the second hole.

The family atmosphere isn't the only thing that sets the course apart: factor in its playability, hole variety, attractive scenery and very reasonable rates, and you may begin to get a better feel for Wil-Mar.

This isn't your typical suburban golf course. Located four miles outside the city of Raleigh, the course is surrounded not by developments but by rustic, rural farmland -- cedars, oaks and maple trees line the fairways, and cows graze in the fields adjacent to the 10th hole. Nine ponds and water features and natural wetlands on the course's 154 acres ensure that you get your fill of nature, not a view of someone's backyard.

You'll find that it isn't just the staff that is friendly here -- the course itself treats players kindly. "Length is something we didn't have when we were designing the course," said Wilkerson. "So we tried to design it so that every type of player can reach the greens in regulation. There's no long forced carries here."

The goal, explains Wilkerson, is for players to have fun and want to come back for more.

Wil-Mar Golf Club: The course

That's not to say the course isn't challenging. With several doglegs, sloping fairways and well-protected, tiered greens, accuracy and ball placement are critical.

So how do you score well at Wil-Mar? You'll need to consider your club selection carefully. Not all the par 4s require driver off the tee. And you'll need to work on your ability to shape your shot. "You really have to think your way around this course," said Wilkerson.

It hasn't been easy staying in business for 50 years, weathering recessions and downturns in the market. Golfers in this area have close to 60 courses to choose from -- with so much competition, how has Wil-Mar managed to survive while other courses flounder? Allen credits their commitment to continual improvements, and their investments in upgrades such as brand-new waste bunkers and their recently added tifdwarf greens.

Adaptability has also been a factor. "We had to think of new ideas to get people to come out," said Allen. One of the ideas they came up with was their "pay once, play all day" policy. Re-rounds or extra holes are all included in the rate.

Roe Wiles, a Raleigh resident who plays at least once a week at Wil-Mar, counts herself lucky to live close to Wil-Mar.

"It's just fun," Wiles said, "and the rates are very reasonable."

Her husband James appreciates the consistently good conditions. "I know people who've been playing here since it opened who say it's in the best condition it's ever been in."

But what really brings them back is the atmosphere. "I would recommend it to all levels of golfers," said James, "and the owners and management are just really nice people."

Wil-Mar Golf Club: The verdict

Don't let Wil-Mar's relatively short length (6,120 yards from the back tees) fool you -- you'll need to use every shot in your bag and put on your thinking cap before teeing off at Wil-Mar.

You may not have to deal with lengthy carries, but you will need to know your distances and how to shape your shot to score well here.
You can expect to play an enjoyable round at Wil-Mar for a very reasonable price. The walkability, scenery, and friendliness of the staff make it stand out in an area where golfers have plenty of courses to choose from.

Wil-Mar offers swing and playing lessons including video analysis, a full-length practice range and three putting greens. Junior golf camps and clinics are also available.

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Wil-Mar golf courseWil-Mar Golf Club

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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