Friday 23 August 2019

The farmer's daughter who sowed the seeds for The Open at Portrush

Royal Portrush. Photo: Sportsfile
Royal Portrush. Photo: Sportsfile

James Corrigan

Wilma Erskine was at Lahinch for the third round of the Irish Open yesterday and everybody who recognised her had two questions: "How is the place looking?" and "what the hell are you doing here?"

Erskine has been the secretary-manager of Royal Portrush for 35 years. Next week, the Northern Irish links will stage The Open for the first time since 1951.

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"I've told them all that I'm here in Co Clare checking out the opposition, but, in truth, most of the work has been done and this is the calm before the storm," Erskine says. "It's strange, almost surreal, to think the championship is now just a matter of days away. It's been so long in the pipeline - from just a dream in the bar, to this, the reality. The course is looking incredible. So, too, the entire town. It is a bit different to what it was like when I took on the job in 1984."

At the time, female secretary-managers of golf clubs were rare. But over the past four decades, the farmer's daughter who broke the mould at the same time as scraping the mould away has become synonymous with Royal Portrush.

Darren Clarke defers to very few people, especially in his home town, but he refers to Erskine as "The Boss."

"Oh, that is silly, but it has caught on," she says. "It's because tradesmen have come to the club, seen the 'secretary' bit in the title, not understood what that role means in golf, thought of secretaries as female and innocently said, 'Can I see the boss, please?' So my stock reply has become, 'Hey, you're looking at her - I am the boss.' "

With a mix of charm, humour and natural authority, there has never been any doubt about who is in control. An anecdote involving Rory McIlroy proves the respect Erskine's character demands. "It was a couple of years ago and my assistant kept telling me, 'there's this chap who keeps ringing asking for you to fix up a tee-time'," she recalls.

"Eventually he caught me when I was in the office and a voice said, 'Hi, Wilma, it's Rory, is it OK if I come and play the course?' I replied, 'Rory, you're an honorary member, a four-time major champion, the course-record holder, you really don't have to ask permission.'

'But I remember you once told me to always be courteous and when I wanted to play any course to always ring ahead,' Rory told me. To which I replied, 'Yes, but you were 14 at the time.' "

As it is, McIlroy was probably wise to check. From being consigned to the sport's waste bin, Portrush is now high up on every golfer's bucket list. "I was looking at the diary in 1985 and there was one American three-ball who played here in the whole year," Erskine says. "We were so excited, we put a big circle around their names and marked it 'USA'. The Troubles were still going on then and nobody wanted to visit. There was also an economic downturn and, to be frank, the course was a bit of a mess.

"We took about £36,000 in green fees that year; last year we took £2.2m,  with a £5m turnover. Now when Americans call for tee-times, they don't ask which day they can play, but which year."

That will be Erskine's legacy when she retires in the autumn. While many facets went into Portrush being introduced back on to The Open roster, without Erskine it would not have been possible. "Wilma has the vision but, more importantly, the drive, and no, it wouldn't have happened without her," George O'Grady, the former European Tour chief executive, once told me. "She is a difficult woman to say no to."

Erskine laughed when told of his comment. "Let's just say that when I get hold of something I don't like to let it go," she says. "And when we'd say, 'We want The Open,' our tongues would be slightly in cheek. But then, all these thing started coming together.

"The end of the Troubles, the economic uplift, all of our boys winning majors… Graeme [McDowell] and Darren are both Portrush lads, while Rory is our nation's superstar - they'd put Northern Irish golf back on the map.

"We'd had the Amateur Championship in 1993, for the first time in 33 years, and then a few Senior Opens, so the course was being seen on TVs around the world. George, himself, has family connections at Portrush and gave us the 2012 Irish Open for the first time in 65 years and, despite the weather being awful, we showed we could stage a big event. The momentum was with us, although when Peter Dawson [the former R&A chief executive] and his team told us we would need two new holes to make space to accommodate the infrastructure, we did almost baulk.

"Yet the club committees have always been great, we worked together and Martin Ebert [the course architect] created the new seventh and eighth, which are magnificent. With the finance, the government played its part, with Arlene Foster [then the tourist minister] getting the importance straight away. There has been £17m spent on the town - a new station, and if it stands still it has been painted. Portrush has never looked better and with the guarantee of at least two more Opens, this will go on and on.

"It will be incredible to see Tiger Woods and all these great Americans finally here competing. But it's what it will mean afterwards - to the members, the club, the town, the coastline and the country. And to have played my wee part has been a privilege. You can tell them all, we are ready and waiting."

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