Do you ever think there are times when it’d be really lovely to be a fly on the wall? For me, one of those times occurred a week or so back at the Irish Golf Tour Operators’ Association’s awards when they presented Wilma Erskine, club manager of Royal Portrush Golf Club, with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Wilma’s is a name that you will hear increasingly over the next eight months as she steers the club towards hosting the Open Championship next July, returning after a gap of 61 years. This would be a huge task for anyone, but to navigate through the extremely choppy waters of the Northern Ireland troubles to what we all envisage will be a successful staging of one of the world’s greatest sporting events is nothing short of miraculous.
I remember it was early to mid-1980s when a fresh-faced Wilma turned up at the club to take over the reins. Needless to say, my pals and I were all delighted, if not a little astounded, that a woman – a YOUNG woman – had got the job in such a male-dominated environment. Rumbling around in the background, however, were mutterings and harrumphings about the suitability of this girl for the job. Wilma has since told me she was very well aware that some of the older members, who were very set in their ways, subtly let it be known that they believed she couldn’t hack it and would be gone in about six months. Well, safe to say she outlasted them all. Looking back, however, it was a decision of outstanding foresight on the part of the then captain and council to make the appointment, especially as there had been a couple of short tenures immediately preceding Wilma. She didn’t let them down, but it can have been far from easy in that climate.
By the time the 1990s rolled around Wilma’s vision for the club was expanding, looking ever more outwards for opportunities to put Royal Portrush on the map. And so a new era began for the club – a decade of cutting their teeth in the arena of staging top-class golf events. First it was the Amateur Championship, then five successive Senior British Opens. I’m not sure at this juncture that even in Wilma’s ambitious brain there were thoughts of one day bringing the Open itself back to Northern Ireland. Lessons were being learned, however, experience gained and, most importantly, relationships formed and forged with some of the great shakers and movers in the game. And you have to remember that, running alongside all of this, Wilma had to juggle the not inconsiderable task of her “day job” – running the club and keeping the members happy. Not everyone wants the upheaval of tournament golf with the attendant time-consuming activities impacting their course and their regular weekly games.
There’s no doubt, also, that the stars were aligning out in the professional tournament arena as regards Ireland shouldering to the front and centre of the golfing consciousness. Padraig Harrington’s three major successes, followed by Graeme McDowell’s US Open win, Darren Clarke’s Open victory and Rory’s run of four majors gave the island nine majors in a space of seven years. Interest in these players and Irish golf was at an all time high and every one of them used their influence to support and push the idea of the Open’s return to Portrush. They couldn’t have delivered at a better time as regards drawing the eyes of the golfing world Irelandwards.
A vital step in the whole process was to host a really large scale event and so it was that the European Tour’s Irish Open came to Portrush in 2012. Attendance figures smashed the all-time records for a European Tour event and the television pictures beamed around the world delivered on every front.
Two years later the R&A made the announcement we could only have dreamed of – and here we are, on the cusp of staging the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush. To say we’re all beyond excited is an understatement. It has been a mammoth collective effort but there’s no doubt that at the heart of it all is Wilma Erskine, driving the process with tremendous energy, wit, diplomacy and a no-nonsense, can-do attitude. She has quietened the doubters, harnessed the support of the global golf heavyweights, constantly acknowledged and praised her team and pulled it off.
She says she plans to retire after the Open – what a legacy she has created, because I’m absolutely sure this won’t be a one-off Open. This is so much more than golf – the R&A tell us that the economic benefit to the host region is £100 million. Mind-boggling stuff. So, as you walk the fairways next July or watch on the telly, roaring on your favourites, you will be witnessing something very special indeed.
Whoever wins, you’ll be watching Wilma’s Open.