As always, there are some sporting achievements that don’t fall into any of our pre-determined categories, and for that reason we hold aside two Special Recognition Awards which are sponsored by Granite Marketing and Linwoods.
The winners are two people who are certainly fully deserving of special recognition for very different reasons — Royal Portrush’s former secretary and manager Wilma Erskine and British Touring Car champion Colin Turkington.
Both had incredible years in 2019 in their respective sports, and we were delighted to recognise that at our Sports Awards ceremony at the Crowne Plaza Hotel last night.
Perhaps the defining moment of 2019 was Shane Lowry standing on the 18th green at Royal Portrush, lifting the Claret Jug in front of a cheering grandstand, and that is largely down to the unbelievable work done behind the scenes by Erskine.
Bringing The Open Championship back to the north coast was one of the greatest achievements of the decade, and it was Erskine’s vision and drive to bring the Irish Open to Portrush in 2013 that paved the way for her to push to bring the Major itself to the Dunluce links.
Once that was achieved, it was down to Erskine and her team to produce a stunning event, which they did with aplomb.
Record crowds flocked to the north coast over the course of the week, the best players from across the globe were in attendance and the world’s media needed catered for in one of the biggest events in world sport.
But not only did Erskine and her team get the job done, they excelled at it. There were only positive things said about the tournament, both on the course and surrounding it, with Northern Ireland receiving rave reviews from players, fans and media alike for the hospitality and breathtaking scenery.
So much of that is down to how Erskine was able to promote and run the event, and none of it would have been possible had she not had that ambition to bring the Irish Open to our shores all the way back in 2013.
Erskine retired from her job following the tournament having spent 33 years at the famous golf club, but she can do so knowing the tournament was a major success.
The Open is estimated to have brought around £100m to the Northern Ireland economy, with many tourism benefits still to come over the years.
Erskine was awarded an OBE for services to tourism and golf in the New Year’s Honours list, and is one of Northern Ireland golf’s greatest ambassadors.
Even though she has now moved on from Royal Portrush, Erskine’s work within golf here still continues as she has moved into an advisory role.
The 60-year-old is now helping out with several projects, including at Galgorm Castle Golf Club, which has hosted events on the European Challenge Tour for several years.
Her influence on the Northern Ireland golfing scene cannot be understated, and that is why she is a deserving winner of one of our Special Recognition Awards.
British Touring Car Championship winner Turkington is equally deserving after another exemplary year in which he retained his British crown in a dramatic title race.
Defending a motor racing title is no easy feat, but for Turkington, 2019 proved the year that he finally managed to achieve it.
Having won the 2018 crown, Turkington backed it up by doing it again in 2019, in the process making it a fourth BTCC title in his career which sealed his place as one of the most successful drivers in Championship history.
The Portadown man has thrived since returning to West Surrey Racing in the 2017 season, winning the Championship in two of his three years with the team with 2019 arguably his most impressive of the lot.
His consistency throughout the campaign was admirable, with the 37-year-old mixing five wins with five fastest laps and three pole positions to edge a close title race.
Indeed, it came down to the last race, with Turkington’s sixth-placed finish at Brands Hatch enough to see him beat Andrew Jordan and Dan Cammish to the crown by just two points.
Turkington is undoubtedly one of Northern Ireland’s top motor racing drivers, and over the past 12 months proved that he continues to perform at the top level.