How 'The Boss' Wilma Erksine's driving ambition brought The Open to Royal Portrush
The Open Golf Championship - one of the biggest global events - comes to Royal Portrush in 2019. Instrumental in bringing it is club secretary/manager Wilma Erksine. It's no wonder they call her 'The Boss', writes Steven Beacom
What a week it has been for Royal Portrush Golf Club. We knew it was coming, but it's official now - The Open, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, will be played at the famous links course from July 18-21, 2019.
No wonder all at the north coast venue are walking around with an extra spring in their step and with an enormous sense of pride.
To coin a phrase connected with the Northern Ireland football team, those who work inside the clubhouse and outside on the greens at the Portrush club dared to dream and, in less than four years' time, those dreams will become reality, with the best golfers in the world arriving on these shores to play the biggest golf tournament there is.
Stars such as Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and maybe even Tiger Woods, if he overcomes his constant injury woes, will join our own superstar trio of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke on the fairways for what promises to be four of the most fabulous sporting days ever witnessed in our wee country.
And from now until then, there is a great deal to be done to ensure that everything, from the re-design of the course to the spectator facilities, is up to scratch.
At Portrush Golf Club, there is confidence, belief and - just as importantly - the will to make it a monumental success. There is also Wilma Erksine, one formidable lady.
She is the club secretary/manager at Portrush, a bright, bubbly, intelligent, hardworking 57-year-old who makes things happen.
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The Ballymoney native talks as straight as Rory McIlroy drives off the tee, puts as much preparation into major tasks as Jason Day, has the imagination of Phil Mickelson, and finishes the job with the aplomb of Jordan Spieth on the putting green.
Wilma has been in her current role since 1984. In those 31 years, she has seen and delivered some massive changes.
When she arrived, having previously managed Portadown and Massereene Golf Clubs, Royal Portrush was experiencing difficult times.
Quite simply, not enough people were playing golf on the course. Membership numbers were too low and financial problems were too high on the agenda.
Now the annual turnover is £3.5m and the place has 1,600 members, including men, women and children, plus golfers from overseas who love a true test of their skills on the links course and the hospitality off it.
Wilma, married to Tennent's Northern Ireland executive Ross Heggarty for the past 20 years, has been key to it all. She is not known as 'The Boss' for nothing.
Brought up on a farm, she studied business studies in Edinburgh and Bristol.
"I decided to come home to Northern Ireland after my studies, because there weren't many job offers on the table," says Wilma, who this year was awarded the British Empire Medal for her services to Northern Ireland tourism and golf.
"The best thing I was offered was to be PA to the chairman of Bristol Rovers Football Club. When I came home, I got a job as private secretary to the head of operations at the airport.
"Then, when I was 22, a job came up as secretary/manager of Portadown Golf Club and, a year-and-a-half later, I moved to Massereene Golf Club, where I stayed for three years."
It was then that her mum told Wilma about a vacancy at Royal Portrush, which she successfully applied for.
At the time, some in the golfing fraternity said she would do well to last six months in her new role.
"Portrush was an old, traditional club and, yes, very much a man's world," she says. "I was a woman who had just turned 27 and, to be honest, I did think 'What am I doing here?' But I got people round to the way of thinking that we had to run the club as a business to make it successful. That was a gradual process. The committee, or board, at the club change year-on-year, but I am the one constant. They decide the policies and it is up to me to implement them.
"We knew we had a great golf course and that we had to bring people to the golf course, so they could enjoy the experience, and once that started to happen, we felt that they would come back and that word would get out just what a great experience it was to play Royal Portrush.
"The problem was that, in the 1980s and early 1990s, nobody wanted to come to Northern Ireland - let alone to play golf.
"Then we were given the Amateur Championship to host in 1993, when the R&A (Royal and Ancient) had the confidence that we could stage it. We had great crowds, and then we hosted other championships. As we forged strong relationships, then we started talking about holding an Irish Open."
In 2012, that ambition was realised when record crowds turned out for a European Tour event.
And then, last Tuesday, came the announcement that the biggest golfing event of them all would touch down here in 2019.
"We are very solid and able people in Northern Ireland, and I would certainly be one of those who would have said, 'Why can't we do this?', rather than thinking, 'We have no chance'," says Wilma, filled with determination.
"With the Irish Open, everyone got behind it. We had record crowds and that really showed what we were capable of.
"And then, of course, discussions began about holding The Open, the biggest tournament of them all, and on Tuesday the R&A announced that it was going to happen in July 2019. That was a great moment and so positive for us as a club and Northern Ireland as a whole.
"Golf isn't just a game. It is a huge industry, and the economic benefits for the country with The Open coming here will be huge. It won't just be the week of the tournament, it will be everything surrounding it beforehand and the legacy it leaves afterwards."
Growing up, Wilma enjoyed playing hockey, tennis and squash, but golf is her number one sport now. She has a handicap of 28, though, as, because of her workload, she doesn't play as much as she would like.
In recent years, Wilma has been to the Masters at Augusta - "a wonderful experience" - and was a guest of Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour in America, at the Players Championship in Sawgrass.
Finchem fell in love with Royal Portrush after having played the course. He is not alone. It is a regular occurrence that the rich and famous, celebrities and sporting stars rock up to the clubhouse hoping for 18 holes.
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, described by Wilma as "a lovely lady", was particularly taken by the course when she played it earlier this year.
"It is great that so many people from all over the world want to play our course. After The Open has taken place here in 2019, there will be even more visitors for us," says Wilma, who has two stepdaughters, Leigh and Kirsten.
"Everyone is working hard to make it a big success and, by the end of it all, we all be very proud.
"There are always hurdles to cross, but if you have the desire you can get there.
"I believe there is a great feeling with sport in Northern Ireland at the moment. Look at the success of the Giro d'Italia cycling race coming here and the Irish Opens that have been staged here. I'm sure The Open will be the same."
With Wilma Erskine in the background, of that there is no doubt.
A life so far
Name: Wilma Erksine
Born: Ballymoney, Co Antrim
Education: Studied business studies in Edinburgh and Bristol
Married to Ross Heggarty for the past 20 years. Two step-daughters, Leigh and Kirsten
Occupation: secretary/manager of Royal Portrush Golf Club
She says: "Working at a golf club is not a job - it is a way of life"