News & Opinion

Lovable Wilma reigns as ‘Boss’ of Portrush

Keith Pelley, the executive director of the European Tour, remembers the first time he met Wilma Erskine at Royal Portrush, the site of this week’s 148th British Open

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Keith Pelley, the executive director of the European Tour, remembers the first time he met Wilma Erskine at Royal Portrush, the site of this week’s 148th British Open. It was in the lead-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, and Pelley was hoping to get European team captain Darren Clarke to do yet another promotional activity.

“She said, ‘I'll get Darren to do that. Don't worry; leave him to me,’ ” Pelley said. “I went, Who exactly are you? I met her, and then I realized. I went, Oh, I get it; you're running this place. There is no question. Yeah, I love her. She's great. But everybody does.”

 Keith Pelley, the executive director of the European Tour
Keith Pelley, the executive director of the European Tour, remembers the first time he met Wilma Erskine at Royal Portrush, the site of this week’s 148th British Open, the club secretary at Royal Portrush

Everybody loves Erskine, whom many consider to be the driving force in bringing the Open back to Portrush for the first time in 68 years. Erskine, who grew up as a farmer’s daughter from nearby Ballymoney, was just 26 years old when, in 1984, after stints at two other golf clubs, she became the first and only female secretary at a “Royal” club. She’s known to one and all as “The Boss,” a nickname bestowed upon her after one too many people assumed the club secretary had to be a male and let it be known who was in charge. No less than Rory McIlroy, an honorary member of the club and the course-record-holder, calls her “very instrumental” in getting the Open.

“She's the heartbeat of the golf club,” McIlroy said. “Obviously it all started with Padraig [Harrington] and Darren winning Opens and Graeme [McDowell] winning a U.S. Open, and that made the R&A interested in bringing it there. She's worked with the R&A and got the Irish Open there in 2012. Her influence is definitely what got it over the line.”

Maureen Madill is a former touring pro on the Ladies European Tour and commentator for BBC’s golf coverage whose Irish lilt is better known to an American audience for radio work on Westwood One and SiriusXM during the majors. She has been a Royal Portrush member for some 50 years and witnessed how Erskine has taken the club places where the members didn’t even know they wanted to go.

“I didn’t think they would be enlightened enough to pick someone like Wilma, let alone someone as feisty as Wilma,” Madill said. “She gets the job and she isn’t very long into the job when she overhears two of the men’s council saying she’ll be gone in six months. She tells the story with great vigor because she’s outlasted all of the council members, and even some of their successors. She’s just done a magnificent job.”

Much of the reason that McIlroy and Clarke say it was unthinkable that they’d play an Open at Portrush in their lifetimes is because of "The Troubles," the Irish euphemism for the sectarian violence that dominated world headlines through the 1990s. It kept many a golf nut away from experiencing the gems that await on Northern Ireland’s side of the Emerald Isle.

TV analyst David Feherty, a five-time European Tour winner who was born in 1958, remembers riots on the streets, road blocks, bombings and sectarian slayings. He served as an assistant professional at Balmoral Golf Club, which was located in the center of the war zone in Belfast and had its clubhouse blown up.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Feherty, referring to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which opened the door to the R&A once again considering Royal Portrush as an Open venue.

Golfers have been coming in droves ever since tensions subsided, though Feherty noted, “there’s still an undercurrent.”

For generations, the thought of hosting the Open seemed laughable. McDowell, who grew up in Portrush, says he had a running joke with Peter Dawson, the R&A’s first chief executive, who retired in 2015 after 16 years on the job. Every time McDowell saw Dawson at the Open, he would ask, “What do you think about a return to Portrush?”

The club slowly returned to the public eye by hosting the British Amateur in 1993 and the British Senior Open in 1995–99 and 2004. A successful staging of the 2012 Irish Open, which attracted a then-European Tour record attendance of 126,505 spectators, and matched the final-round attendance of the British Open at Royal Lytham that year, according to Erskine, impressed Dawson and the R&A, but he still made it sound as if Portrush possessed the longest of longshots that summer.

“There is a great deal and a huge amount of money would need to be spent, in my estimation, to make Royal Portrush a sensible choice,” he said. “The commercial aspects of it are quite onerous. … It’s going to take some time to come to a view, and the view may be ‘No.’ ”

Erskine refused to take “No” for an answer. The following quote, which she said to Golf Digest, sums up her bottomless resolve: “People early on would say to me, ‘You’re dreaming,’ but if there’s something that annoys me in life, it’s when people say you can’t do something,” Erskine said.

Her most masterful job was winning over Dawson.

“During the process, we added a new word to our vocabulary at the R&A, and that is being Wilma’ed,” Dawson said. “That means being told to sit up, pay attention, and do what you’re told. I was Wilma’ed on several occasions, and I know I deserved it.”

Still, there was the matter of accommodating all of the necessary accoutrements that accompany the scale of a modern Open. To make the Dunluce Links feasible to host a major championship required space for the exhibition tent, among other things. If there had been a criticism of the Dunluce Links, it had been that the 17th and 18th holes were slightly weaker.

Dawson and course architect Martin Ebert, who with Tom Mackenzie makes up the Mackenzie & Ebert architectural firm, proposed changing the routing: Using land that was part of the adjoining Valley Course, two new holes were created as the seventh (a par 5) and eighth (par 4) of the Dunluce, replacing the original 17 and 18, and turning the original No. 16 into the finishing hole. Erskine sold the membership that these adjustments would increase the character and quality of the links for members and visitor play and eliminate the last hurdle standing in the way of the Open’s return to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. These additions look as if they've been there forever. For Erskine, this week’s Open, which is sold out, will be her crowning achievement before she retires later this year.

“We're all going to make it the biggest, the best and the most successful [Open] ever,” Erskine said.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak