Patience, persistent 'Boss' drove Royal Portrush’s return to the Open rota

Patience, persistent 'Boss' drove Royal Portrush’s return to the Open rota

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Patience, persistent 'Boss' drove Royal Portrush’s return to the Open rota

Wilma Erskine, secretary/manager of Royal Portrush Golf Club, regularly meets with R&A officials to discuss preparations for the 2019 British Open. Topics might include infrastructure plans or agronomics, or the design changes recently completed on the club’s Dunluce Links.

One day last year, Erskine arrived at a meeting with the R&A to discuss monies owed the club. As Erskine tells the story, she walked into the room alone and feigned surprise at being outnumbered.

“This is not very fair,” she recalls saying. “There are three of you.”

“But we’re scared of you,” came the reply.

“But I’m just a little old lady,” Erskine said.

The irony, of course, is that nobody thinks Wilma Erskine is “just a little old lady” – and that includes Wilma Erskine.

She acknowledges, somewhat grudgingly, that she’s known around Royal Portrush as “The Boss,” a moniker with which she’s not entirely comfortable.

“This has come about because there are three guys who work in the office outside. And people will come in looking for the secretary – ‘Is he about?’ ” she explained.

The secretary typically is the senior official at clubs in the United Kingdom, but Erskine, mimicking a typist, knows many people associate that title with a clerical role.

“You get to the stage where you’re fed up and you say, ‘I’m the boss,’ ” she said.

Erskine, 59, has been the boss at Royal Portrush for 33 years. She was in her 20s when she took the job, having already run two other clubs in Northern Ireland.

“At that time we were in the middle of The Troubles, economic problems, so this place was falling down,” Erskine recalled recently. “The words ‘U.S. golfer’ were never heard. We didn’t have any U.S. business.”

The political situation slowly improved, and so, too, did Royal Portrush’s fortunes. The club hosted the British Amateur in 1993, then the British Senior Open five consecutive years starting in 1995. International visitors also began arriving, lured by the Dunluce Links, ranked No. 5 among Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses of Great Britain & Ireland. These days, Erskine said, an astounding 75 percent of Royal Portrush’s rounds are played by Americans and Canadians.

In 2012, the Irish Open came to Royal Portrush, the first time the tournament was played in Northern Ireland in 59 years.

By that time Erskine and the club had their sights set on the ultimate prize: bringing the British Open back to Royal Portrush and Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. She understood the obstacles but wasn’t deterred.

“The challenge always with Wilma is she doesn’t like the word ‘no,’ ” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. “I love that about her. She’s the driving force and she deserves the credit she gets at Portrush, as does the whole (club championship) council.”

Nos. 7 and 8 at Royal Portrush

• • •

The 2012 Irish Open was an unqualified success. Suddenly, the idea of landing the British Open wasn’t so far-fetched.

While security concerns had eased, doubts remained as to whether Northern Ireland had the infrastructure and financial support to host big tournaments. Given less than a year to prepare for that Irish Open, Royal Portrush welcomed more than 130,000 spectators over four days, easing concerns about getting people to the course on the winding, two-lane roads from town.

The only remaining hurdle was the course. There was strong sentiment that the final two holes were anticlimactic, at best. The R&A, Erskine said, also wanted Nos. 1 and 18 to merge in an amphitheater setting.

The solution, made in consultation with architect Martin Ebert, the R&A’s go-to guy on design matters, was to build two new holes and turn No. 16 into the finishing hole. The Dunluce’s new seventh and eighth holes opened for play in late June. They sit on or near land previously occupied by Nos. 5 and 6 from the club’s Valley Course, and they are entirely new designs.

“Those were quite difficult holes to build,” Ebert said. “You had to have a bit of imagination to see where they were.”

The par-5 seventh covers land previously used for a long par 3, while the new dogleg-left eighth sits near the Valley’s old par-4 fifth. The “Big Nellie” bunker from the old 17th has been replicated on the new seventh. What’s striking, given all of the work, is the new holes seem to rest as comfortably on the land as the other 16.

“Virtually every inch from the start of the fairway through to the green on the seventh, and same with the eighth, has been shaped,” Ebert said. “We’d like to do it without moving any earth, but for those two holes it was essential.”

The new holes increased congestion in the middle of the routing. That led to what Ebert called “the eureka moment”: construction of a tunnel that allows players to move freely between greens and tees on that part of the course while Open spectators roam above.

Ebert still has some work to do on the 18th green this year, but the heavy lifting on the course is done. The 2019 Open, likely to be the biggest sporting event ever held in Ireland, has gone from far-fetched dream to inevitability. The R&A also has committed to bringing the Open back to Royal Portrush at least two more times.

“This is not something just for Royal Portrush Golf Club, this is for the town of Portrush and Ireland as a whole,” Erskine said. “This is something to show everybody, Look what we’re doing now. Look how Northern Ireland has come on.

No. 5 at Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links

• • •

All of that is true, but it’s also a personal triumph for Erskine.

The obvious fact sometimes is noted in the media: that she is a strong woman in a male-dominated business. That’s not lost on her.

“I’m not your normal person,” she said. “The R&A would say I’m not your normal person. They’re used to dealing with secretaries who are male and military, and then they’ve got me.”

But it runs deeper than simply gender. Sam Baker, founder of tour operator Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions, began sending golfers to Royal Portrush in 1992, when Erskine was a young club secretary in a region still racked by terrorism. (He reasoned that the IRA wouldn’t mess with Americans because much of its funding came from the U.S.) Baker marvels at the alliances Erskine has built and the balance she has struck – courting the lucrative tourist trade while protecting her members.

“Not only has she run a Royal, but she’s run a Royal in as conservative an area as you can get,” Baker said. “That whole area is orange through and through, and you wouldn’t expect them to be exactly innovative.” (Orange refers to the strict Protestant order that, among other things, advocates close ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.)

Erskine might be known as “The Boss,” but she seems to have a seasoned politician’s knack for forging coalitions. She is said to have developed a strong friendship with Slumbers’ predecessor, Peter Dawson, who, according to Ebert, took a personal interest in bringing Royal Portrush back into the Open rota. (Dawson declined to be interviewed for this story.)

“I think this was sort of (Dawson’s) legacy,” Erskine said. “He saw our desire to have this tournament.”

Erskine said that the lesson she took from the Irish Open had to do with teamwork between the club, the European Tour, and local government and businesses: “Everybody has to be singing off the same hymn sheet.”

Ebert said that when he worked at Royal Portrush, Erskine sometimes would arrange meals at the nearby Harbour Bistro and invite all of the principals involved in the project.

“She makes everybody feel like they’re part of the team,” Ebert said.

Baker had a similar story. He said Erskine has taken pains to understand his side of the business so that she can improve the guest experience.

“She’s been really accommodating to visitors, in the sense that you can sit down with Wilma and talk about things that need to be tweaked, and she’s been very good about that,” Baker said. “But she also really protects the integrity of that club. I think that’s one of the reasons the members love her.”

Royal Portrush is on every visiting golfer’s must-play list, but the club isn’t taking that business for granted. Just this year, Erskine said, the club increased tee-time intervals to 12 minutes from 10, allowing tourists more time for pictures. The halfway house also was spruced up.

“We’re here to give people an enjoyable experience,” she said.

When she’s not busy with club matters or 2019 Open planning, Erskine has begun working, with input from the R&A, on her legacy project: a seabird center in Portrush. The idea ties in neatly with the R&A’s emphasis on sustainability.

This is all part of her post-Portrush life, which will begin following the 2019 Open.

“I think it would be hard after the Open to come back to just looking after the members,” she said. “And I think it’s right also because I’ve been here a long time, and I think it’s right for someone new to come in here with new ideas. Younger and more pizzazz.”

After 35 years at Royal Portrush and a British Open in the books, she thinks it might be nice to have her weekends free, maybe spend more time at her vacation home in Spain, maybe even play more golf.

But she’s quick to add: “I’m not going to retire, I’m going to leave here. I don’t think I could just retire from life, I just need something to do.”

“The Boss” is not the retiring type.

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