Sport Golf

Monday 21 October 2019

Portrush enjoying Open effect

Championship will mark a fitting end to Wilma Erskine's 35-year term

Apart from contributing more than €100m to the local economy, The Open will secure the club’s future for the next generation. Photo: Getty Images
Apart from contributing more than €100m to the local economy, The Open will secure the club’s future for the next generation. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Though the big event is still seven months away, Royal Portrush is already experiencing The Open effect. The year just ending has delivered record green-fee revenues of £3m, which is twice what they might have expected before landing their coveted prize.

"My marketing budget has now been reduced to zero," the club's secretary/manager Wilma Erskine memorably remarked three years ago when news of 2019 was confirmed. As a bonus, the modified Dunluce links is drawing rich praise not only from tourists, but from television crews who arrived recently from both sides of the Atlantic and who are expected back in the New Year.

The only downside for those enriched by Ms Erskine's expertise is her scheduled departure. "Yes, I'm stepping down after it's over," she said last week. "I think it's the right time to embark on something else. After 35 years, I think I've done my bit."

Then typically, she couldn't resist adding: "I've managed to survive a lot longer than a lot of people. Now it's time for someone new, with fresh ideas. Having had The Open, what more could I ask for?" What indeed.

She will be greatly missed. At the risk of drawing down the wrath of the sisterhood, for a woman to have charge of the financial fortunes of such an historically conservative establishment can have been achieved only by brilliant stewardship.

Perhaps the key has been her even-handedness, whatever the circumstances. This, undoubtedly, has been facilitated by the fact that nobody in her position, male or female, has been accorded such authority by an Irish golf club, with the possible exception of the legendary south-west duo of Brud Slattery at Lahinch and Seán Walsh at Ballybunion.

Much has changed at Royal Portrush since I first caught sight of it in July 1970 when covering the North of Ireland Amateur Championship. That, incidentally, was when John O'Leary led the qualifiers on 142, two strokes clear of Brian Hoey, Michael's father, who remains a fund of knowledge on the game. The title went to local man Johnny Faith, who passed from us a few years ago. In a dramatic climax, he beat Roddy Carr on the second extra hole.

The expanse of acreage which contained the 17th and 18th holes back then, is now largely level ground to accommodate next July's tented village. Only the remains of Big Nellie, the cavernous bunker threatening tee-shots on the long 17th is still visible.

"A lot of work went into flattening that area and some time down the road, we're looking at the possibility of building holes there for kids, for beginners," said Ms Erskine. "We're also extending the off-course hospitality area, and other more permanent adjustments will be made after The Open, especially on the Valley Course."

The most significant changes, of course, have been the introduction of new seventh and eighth holes which incorporate elements of the adjoining Valley Course, so facilitating a finish on the existing 16th which has become a suitably testing 465-yard par-four. According to Ms Erskine, visitors have been astonished at how seamlessly the changes have merged into the existing layout.

Halfway up the right side of the short sixth is the tee for a new par-five seventh of 572 yards, and the 435-yard eighth returns to a putting surface about 25 yards back, right of the existing sixth green.

The design work was done by architect Martin Ebert, a partner in the practice of Mackenzie and Ebert. His involvement was based on a lengthy association with the club going back to their preparations for the 1993 British Amateur, when he worked with the more experienced architect Donald Steel. Those who considered any tampering with Harry Colt's masterpiece as nothing short of vandalism were gently informed that the old eighth and ninth were, in fact, designed prior to the 1951 Open by prominent club member Tony Babington, and erstwhile club professional, PD "Stevie" Stevenson. As it happens, the 16th, now the new 18th, was given the name 'Babington's' arising from that work.

"Apart from the new holes, the overall quality of the course is totally different than it was in 1970," added Ms Erskine. "Back then, there were problems on the agronomy side which weren't a major issue because we didn't have many visitors. Now, with our current green-fee traffic, we have to have a course that's in good condition 12 months of the year."

She continued: "There's a brand new greenkeeping complex, which is spectacular, and we've renovated the clubhouse. And the main focus of our greens staff at the moment is in what you might call finesse work to ensure that the bunkers, for instance, are in tip-top condition. Everybody seems quite pleased with the condition of the greens [which, we can take it, means they're superb]."

It used to be calculated by leading resorts in the Republic that playing host to the Irish Open delivered a three-year dividend in enhanced green-fee income. As the 2015 club captain at Royal Portrush pointed out, however, The Open is rather different.

Apart from contributing more than €100m to the local economy, it will secure the club's future for the next generation, according to Sir Richard McLaughlin. "Even in the depths of the Troubles, the 1951 Open continued to bring people here," he said. "And there's no doubt that staging the 2012 Irish Open became a complete turning point in getting it back."

Which, as we are seeing, is already changing a serious imbalance whereby the North, up to The Open announcement, were doing about a tenth of the golf tourist business done in the South.

Meanwhile, there are ongoing meetings with the Royal and Ancient, whose former chief executive, Peter Dawson, took quite a leap of faith in returning The Open to Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner's triumph in 1951. After all the flak levelled at his organisation over Muirfield, the mixed-gender issue formed an important part of the original discussions.

In the event, Dawson was assured that Royal Portrush is most definitely a mixed club, though the lady members have long had their own separate clubhouse, where, incidentally, I happened to enjoy 'elevenses' as a guest, some years ago.

The Royal Portrush constitution states: "Membership of the club shall be in the following classes: Ordinary members, life members, honorary members, temporary members, clubhouse members, weekday members, student members, Great Britain members, members of the Ladies Branch." The ladies pay their fees to the club which oversees them. Other categories, incidentally, include residents of the Republic of Ireland.

"The R and A visits are becoming more frequent the closer we get to the event," said the secretary/manager. In fact, they came to Portrush for a meeting on December 12 and were back again last week."

To my suggestion that she seemed to be calmly taking all of this activity in her stride, she replied: "That's probably because we've been working at it for so long. It's not as if you take anything for granted, but you just get on with it. Going back to the original announcement in 2014, we've been working constantly ever since."

All of this pre-Open activity has been taking place against the background of the club's busiest season ever. A hectic time was how Ms Erskine described it, with tee-times on the Dunluce stretch fully booked and taken. "We even had the sight last summer of visitors going out at 5.30 in the afternoon, which has never happened before," she said.

"Green-fee revenue of over £3m for the year is a lot of money - double what it was prior to the Open announcement."

As an interesting aside, there was a return visit just before Christmas of an NBC television crew who were there a few months previously. "They're blown away by the scenery," said Ms Erskine. "They can't believe the spectacular images they're going to be able to create. Sky have also been here, planning where they're going to site the TV cameras. Both crews have indicated that they will be back in the New Year."

Was this usually placid woman succumbing to even a glimmer of excitement about the greatest achievement of her administrative career? "I'll probably become excited when we get nearer the time," she replied. "And provided everything goes to plan, I can imagine myself saying, 'Wow! How good was that!' when it's all over."

To which her many admirers will be keen to chorus their agreement.

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