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Wil-mar Golf Club: Raleigh's Hidden Treasure Attracts Top Honours for Women and Challenges Everyone

By Jill Hammergren, Contributor

RALEIGH, NC - One of the best-kept secrets in Raleigh, N.C., just got some national recognition. Wil-Mar Golf Club, open since 1961, was named one of the "Top 100 Fairways" in North America by Golf For Women magazine.

Wil-Mar is nestled in what's still countryside, three miles east of Raleigh. This is the first time honor for the family-owned course. "We're thrilled at the honor," says Fran Wilkerson, the LPGA teaching professional and co-owner. "We feel we treat everybody fairly, and we want to be noted for being a course that welcomes everyone, not just women, but also men, youth, families, everyone. But it is definitely an honor for us."

The publication polled its readers for the best 18-hole, daily fee course in North America. Each Top Fairways course has at least one set of forward tees less than 5,500 yards. Wil-Mar is a par 71, 6,142 yards from the championships tees and a par 70, 4,708 yards from the forward tees.

And while that seems short by today's standards, compared to 7,000+ yard courses, Wil-Mar really plays longer because this course challenges all levels of play. And just because there are six par three's on the course, compared to four at most courses this size, don't think this course is going to be a breeze.

Much of the challenge at this course lies in the fact that players must deliver shots with pinpoint, precision accuracy. Tree-lined fairways, greenside bunkers, the occasional water hazard, and some elevated greens test the mettle of many golfers.

The 527-yard (from the blues), par 5, 16th hole is the longest and most difficult on the course. Not surprisingly, this is the number one handicap hole. It will make even the best golfers take notice because the slope of the land sends everything to the right. Too far to the right and you'll be in a valley or in a marshland on the drive. A strategically placed pond on the right side of the fairway demands accuracy.

Getting past that, the golfer is greeted with an elevated green that's surrounded by two bunkers. Getting on this green in regulation is a feat that should be admired.

At Wil-Mar, there isn't just one hole that sticks in your mind. "We have never really decided on a signature hole, but if we did, it would be one of the par 3s," said Wilkerson.

As a testament to the challenges presented in this course, Wilkerson says her best is a 69 from the championship tees.

One of Wil-Mar's newest and most valuable assets is its first full-time Superintendent, Ed Dean. He came to Wil-Mar in 1999 after stints at several Triangle courses and learning the trade at the prestigious Sawgrass and Ponte Vidra Club in Ponte Vidra Beach, FL. Dean has one goal in mind for Wil-Mar, "to be the best golf course in Raleigh."

Ever since Dean's arrival, Wil-Mar has seen some major improvements in the turf conditions and also in the aesthetics. Dean's crew is constantly working to improve tee boxes, fairways and greens. Admittedly, there are still some problem areas that concern him. "We have a few drainage problems, especially on No. 12, but we're working on them. We've made a lot of strides forward. I am fortunate to have owners who are willing to make changes. But the job is never done. There's always room for improvement," said Dean. Marty Allen, co-owner, agrees, "It's tough in this transitional zone. Over the next two years, we'll be focusing more attention on turf conditions and playing conditions for the golfer. We're working toward more consistent greens and consistent tee boxes."

It's not just Dean's knowledge of golf course maintenance, which is extensive, that draws folks to him. His sense of humor is also very appealing. In the middle of a discussion on the precarious care of the G-2 Bent grass used at Wil-Mar, he says, "my biggest job is convincing the grass that it's happy." When asked how he does that, he says, "We sing to it."

Wil-Mar's regular players sing the courses praise too, "It's an interesting course. It's got a lot of character. I think anyone who hasn't played it is missing a great course. The improvements they're making on the course are wonderful. The reason I like the course is because it's a shorter and tighter course, and because it gives you a lot of iron play," said Mary Williams, President, Wil-Mar Ladies League.

But golf course maintenance isn't the only thing that sets Wil-Mar apart. In order to rank among the top fairways, its on-hand instruction had to stand out above the fray. That's where Fran Wilkerson's 22 years of LPGA teaching instruction comes into play. She holds private and group instruction, junior clinics and summer-long junior camps.

"I didn't play golf until I retired 14 years ago, when I retired from NC State University. I took lessons from Fran and I joined Wil-Mar," said Mary Frances Hester, who has been playing at Wil-Mar since she was 60. "It's a nice course and very well-kept and it's just so women-friendly because of Fran. She goes out of her way to make the women feel good when they're there. She helps us with our ladies league and our invitationals. She'll get in the cart and travels the course greeting us and making everyone feel comfortable."

Youth golf is a major focus for Wilkerson, who takes pride in the fact that she's turned thousands of young kids into avid golfers. "I didn't want them to miss out on golf. It's really fun to watch them get better. We have a great time and there are no discipline problems on the golf course. I won't allow it. I teach them the fundamentals and they grow to love the game. It's very rewarding."

Wil-Mar has certainly changed over the years. Its lush fairways were once farmland. It began as a dream of William "Bill" Allen, the father of Wilkerson and Marty Allen. The first nine holes opened in 1961. It wasn't until the spring of 1977 that the back nine was completed.

Wil-Mar's name was derived from a combination of the names of William and Mary, his wife. Gene Hamm was the original architect of the front nine. Marty Allen and his wife, Ann got involved in the project in the 1970's. Though they had no formal golf course design training, Allen and a high school buddy, Charles Debnam, built the back nine with the help of Coates Grading.

Today, eight of the original nine holes remain pretty much the way they were designed. In the next few years, Allen hopes to redesign a couple of the holes and add to the length of a few of them. "We're always looking for ways to enhance the course for our players," said Allen.

Wil-Mar is a public course, but it does have about 150 memberships. Golfers will find that Wil-Mar is one of the most reasonable courses to play in the area. It's seasonal rates range from $18 to $29 to walk the course. The layout of the course makes for a nice walk, since the tees and greens are so close together. But, if you want to ride, which is required on most weekends and holidays, a cart is another $12. There are also discounts after one o'clock each day and winter specials.

GFW judged Wil-Mar on the course, its practice facilities, evenly spaced tee times, and women's programs. But the friendliness instilled by Wilkerson and the Allens assures repeat customers. "The staff is wonderful, they just can't do enough for everyone. It doesn't matter who you are, they're going to bend over backwards for you," said Williams.

"We're a family-owned and run business, that's our reputation, and we definitely strive to make everyone feel welcome," said Wilkerson.

Wil-Mar Golf Club

2300 Old Milburnie Road
Raleigh, NC
Phone: (919) 266-1800

Jill HammergrenJill Hammergren, Contributor

Jill Hammergren is a freelance writer, producer and media consultant living in the Raleigh, NC area. She runs her own business, The Media Pro, a full-service communications and media consulting firm.

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Dates: February 26, 2018 - December 31, 2018
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