At first, the squeals of children swarming over brightly colored playground equipment in the shade of a locust tree seem out of place—the kids are only 50 yards from the 9th tee at the Blue Fox Run Golf Course in Avon, Conn.—but then this thought occurs to a visitor: If a temple of testosterone like Gold's Gym can offer child care, why can't a golf course? The answer was a no-brainer for Lisa Wilson-Foley, one of only a handful of women in the U.S. to own a course. She and her husband, Brian, the owner of 21 nursing homes in New England, have seven children, so providing child care was a logical part of her plan to get more people, particularly women, to play Blue Fox Run, an 18-hole public course 12 miles west of Hartford that she purchased for $3.5 million in January 1997.
The 40-year-old Wilson-Foley, a 21 handicapper, says that when she took out the loan to buy Blue Fox Run, she knew next to nothing about running a golf course. So she listened, and what she heard was that the people who had been running the place hadn't been very friendly. "They were into the mind-set that if a sprinkler went off when you were playing, you were stupid," she says.
It was not long before Wilson-Foley began to formulate the plan that last year resulted in Blue Fox Run being ranked among Golf for Women magazine's top 100 women-friendly public courses in the country. The secret to her success? "We started being nice to women," she says. "Now a woman can get a tee time on the weekend, and when you come in, we're as friendly to you as we are to a man."
Service with a smile was only the beginning. Wilson-Foley used some of the proceeds from the sale of her health-care businesses, which she had built into a $15 million-a-year enterprise, to upgrade Blue Fox Run. Designer Stephen Kaye has gradually renovated the course, fixing things such as tees that were too far from the fairway for many women and holes that were too long for a woman to reach in regulation. Since most women refuse simply to walk into the woods when nature calls, Wilson-Foley also made sure that rest rooms were strategically located throughout the course.
In 1997 Wilson-Foley hired a man and a woman as co-head pros, and they stocked the pro shop with women's, as well as men's, apparel and equipment, including several rental sets of women's clubs. Women's leagues were expanded beyond the traditional Thursday morning coffee klatch (even an evening league was started, so working women could play), women's clinics were added, and Wilson-Foley reached out to women's organizations looking to hold fund-raising tournaments. In April 2000 an $800,000 clubhouse expansion project was completed. The addition features a well-appointed women's locker room (the men's locker room was renovated) and a fully equipped child-care center, a rarity in golf.
Women have responded. In 1997 they played about 15% of the rounds at Blue Fox Run. Last year that figure was up to 30%. Not that men aren't welcome. "I don't like it when people say, 'That's a women's course,' " Wilson-Foley says. "I don't want there to be a perception that women have taken over this place and scare away the men. I would be killing myself, because the women's market is only 20 percent [of all money spent on golf in the U.S.]."
In 1999 Wilson-Foley acquired a nine-hole course near Hartford's Bradley International Airport and this winter will begin work on another Kaye-designed nine holes at Blue Fox Run. She also owns a miniature golf course and a 23-lane bowling alley in Simsbury, Conn., and co-owns the Hartford FoxForce of World Team Tennis with her husband. "I will look at almost any business, but it has to be within 15 miles of Hartford," says Wilson-Foley, who spent too many hours behind the wheel while managing her health-care companies.
Her message to men? "Get this into your head, guys: You can play on Sunday morning. Bring the kids and give your wife the day off."