When Fran Wilkerson says Wil-Mar Golf Club is a family business, it’s a bit of an understatement. Most of her family tree has played a role in operating one of the oldest-run golf courses in Raleigh.
Wilkerson is the woman who runs the golf operation and gives the lessons, but she will tell you the key to success has been a great run with all the relatives.
“It has worked out just perfect,” says Wilkerson. “I can’t even tell you how smooth it’s been for 30 years.”
But 30 years represents only one era of Wil-Mar’s history. The course, located on the east side of Raleigh just off of I-540, turned 50 last year. The facility dates back to Wilkerson’s parents, who opened a nine-hole course back in 1961. Even the course name is a reminder of the family roots. “Wil-Mar” represents the first letters of her parents’ names — William and Mary.
Today, Wil-Mar stands as a bit of a throwback. It doesn’t have the high-end touches of a corporate golf operation. The layout doesn’t cater to folks who are looking to air out their high-tech drivers. It’s more intended for the old-school game.
“We’re not the longest course on the market these days, but Wil-Mar will make you a better golfer because this course teaches you how to shape the ball,” says Wilkerson. “It is a strategic golf course. You don’t just grab your driver on every par 4 or par 5. You have to think about things a bit. Where do I want to leave this ball to have the best angle for my next shot?”
The emphasis on shot-making – rather than power hitting – was common to courses in Wil-Mar’s era. But when her father, Bill Allen, built the course he wasn’t thinking about the hottest trends in recreational play. In fact, he decided golf might be a good stress reducer.
Facing some health issues, he retired from ownership of his country store and learned to golf. Because his family owned farm land, he decided he could build a course of his own – just a place where he could gather his buddies to play.
“We used an existing family cabin as the clubhouse,” said Wilkerson. “It was a meager start.”
It’s also where seven-year-old Fran learned to play the game.
“I was just playing along with my daddy,” she said. “I didn’t take any lessons but I watched the guys play and I started swinging. There were towering pine trees around the cabin. I learned by hitting pine cones around. I got a club in my hand and started swatting.”
The back nine opened in the mid-1970s, around the time that Wilkerson headed off to college at Appalachian State, where she played basketball and volleyball – until the golf team found out she could swing a club, too.
“They just needed another warm body on the team,” she said with a laugh.
When she took over the business in 1981, Wilkerson quickly realized that the next generation of her family held the key to building on Wil-Mar’s success.
Today, she owns Wil-Mar along with her brother, Marty Allen, who is the business manager. Marty’s wife, Ann, handles the bookkeeping. They’ve come a long way since they teamed up to run the place 30 years ago.
“We pulled out the carts, we loaded the hot dog machine, we did everything,” Fran said. “It was a classic, startup family business, where you worked 80 hours a week.
“Both of us had our assets – the things that we were good at. We always had to compromise. But always things worked out.”
The family focus continues today. Wilkerson’s nephew helps with social media, spreading the word about a course that has a special appeal.
“We’ve always had a unique niche in the market,” she says. “We’ve always been a really good value golf course that’s fun to play and you feel welcomed at. Maybe that’s how we’ve managed to keep people coming through the doors.”
Just as likely, however, is the rare challenge that Wil-Mar presents. The course features six par-3s, rather than the standard four.
“They are very long and very difficult. On the scorecard it looks fairly short because we have a lot of par-3s, but they are the most difficult holes on the course.”
Here’s another twist: the greens are small, which prompts another scouting report from Wilkerson.
“You better be pretty accurate with your irons or you’re going to be chipping a lot. And if you can hit a little draw or fade, this is the course for you.”
Recently, all the greens were converted from bent grass to Bermuda, with an eye toward year-round play. And if you go, you might find Wilkerson playing a few holes, too. There’s non-stop work to be done with lessons, junior golf and clinics, but she hasn’t lost her love for playing the game.
“I have always taken time to play golf,” says Wilkerson, who at age 57 also plays senior basketball. “I will never not play golf. I still get just as big a thrill from hitting that perfect golf shot as I did 25 years ago.”