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I came in not knowing the Rules of golf... now I'm getting ready to welcome £120m Open to Royal Portrush

50,000 visitors a day and 600m watching on TV... how the remarkable Wilma Erskine is playing her part in making sure the biggest sporting event Northern Ireland has ever seen will be a Major success

Our Sporting Lives and Times with Jim Gracey

A Rory McIlroy story doing the rounds in golf not only speaks volumes for the multi-millionaire four times Major winner - it is also a testament to the standing in the game of the estimable general manager of Royal Portrush Golf Club, Wilma Erskine, as she strives to make ready for the hugely-anticipated return of The Open Championship to these shores in 2019.

In the locker room tale, Rory has just returned home from one of his Major triumphs and fancies a round at Royal Portrush. He phones the club several times until he gets Wilma on the line and asks if it is OK with her to come up.

"You're an honorary member, Rory, of course you can play," Wilma tells him.

"It's just that you always said to phone ahead if I wanted a game," he replies.

"Yes, Rory, but that was when you were 12!"

It's an amusing yarn but one that also tells a tale of regard and respect that augurs well for the club's hosting of the biggest sporting event this island will ever see.

Fifty thousand people a day are expected through the Dunluce Road gates on each of the four days of the July 18-21, 2019 tournament; television pictures will be beamed into an estimated 600 million homes worldwide with the economic benefit for this region calculated at £120m and rising.

It is Wilma's job to ensure Royal Portrush is ready to welcome the world and a galaxy of golfing star names. So no pressure then.

The responsibility would be enough to keep the most able organiser awake at night.

But Wilma is taking it all in her positive stride.

And that is no surprise to those who have watched her preside over the emergence of Royal Portrush as a global golfing destination in her 33 years at the helm.

From struggling to attract visitors in troubled times, the famous Dunluce and Valley courses are now on the 'must play' list of golfers worldwide. Our own Major winners, Rory, locally raised Graeme McDowell and Portrush domiciled Darren Clarke are global ambassadors at spreading the word, and recently The Queen and Prince Philip stopped by for lunch.

"They were very interested to hear about The Open, how we are building towards it and what it will mean," Wilma relates. "The Queen also felt people should walk more and not use carts to get around golf courses."

The Open, as a topic of conversation, is something Wilma has become used to since last year's confirmation that many years of hard work and lobbying had finally paid off.

Now an energetic 59, Wilma sees the delivery of The Open as a defining moment for club and country. "My other job," she calls it, a reminder that the day-to-day running of Royal Portrush means The Open cannot be all-consuming.

Nevertheless, Wilma affirms: "It's understandable, as 2019 seems a long way away right now, but I don't think people have quite grasped the magnitude of what's coming our way. In terms of numbers and prestige, The Open at Royal Portrush will be on a scale unparalleled in this country.

"The sporting, social and economic benefits will be enormous, creating a legacy for generations to come. That is why we are working so hard here, not just at the club, but on all strands of the organisation locally, to ensure we are ready and that it will be a success. We are here for the love of golf."

The guarantee is in the track record of this remarkable lady for getting things done.

Even now, in more equitable times, it would be hard to comprehend a 26-year-old of any gender being entrusted with the keys to the kingdom at an institution as venerable as Royal Portrush.

But back in the 1980s, when Wilma took charge, a lot of golf club thinking belonged more to the 60s and 70s.

So it was a progressive move by Royal Portrush to break with convention and look to a young woman who admits to still learning the complex Rules of golf at the time. Those who appointed her clearly understood she wasn't there to oversee matters of etiquette but to take the club forward as a viable entity.

Even so, there were some who doubted she would last six months in a predominantly male environment of strong personalities and sometimes rigid ideas, particularly with regard to change.

"To be honest, I wasn't sure myself that I would last six months," Wilma confides. "I'd previously worked at the Portadown and Massereene clubs, which were great, but Royal Portrush with its history, tradition and reputation worldwide was a daunting prospect at that age. But I rolled up my sleeves and got on with it and I must have done something right, because 33 years later, I'm still here."

It wasn't the career path the Ballymoney farmer's daughter had envisaged upon completing her hotel and catering business studies at Edinburgh and Bristol.

Her first job back home was a temporary one at Belfast International Airport as a PA to a former Red Arrow pilot who spotted the vacancy he felt better suited her potential.

"It was an advert for secretary/ manager at Portadown Golf Club," Wilma recalls. "I was sporty and into hockey and tennis and horse riding but I'd never played a round of golf.

"But when you are young and naïve, you think you can do anything.

"I landed the job and the first thing I did was buy a book to learn about golf. I was a complete novice with regard to the game but when you think about it, running a golf club was very similar to my training in bar and restaurant administration.

"The image of golf clubs as places people go to play golf and drink gin is long out of date.

"We have to offer much more than that to survive in this day and age. Our visitors expect the complete package of golf, food, drink, hotel and entertainment, and we work to provide that."

But delivering The Open Championship, last seen in Northern Ireland in 1951, requires expertise and thinking on a stratospheric scale.

It simply wasn't on the radar, not even as an impossible dream, when Wilma settled into her office at Royal Portrush as a difficult decade reached the halfway stage, again believing she could make a difference.

"The 80s were difficult times for everyone, but particularly in golf for clubs like Royal Portrush," recalls Wilma. "We were in the middle of an economic downturn and being a dual member club, we suffered from cancellations as players who found they couldn't afford to belong to two clubs, tended to opt for the one closest to home.

"The Troubles were also ongoing which meant overseas visitor numbers were virtually non-existent."

Faced with a dwindling membership and relying on local societies for green fee revenues, the club looked to its unique selling points - location and a world-renowned links course - as a means of transformation.

Even then, they could not have envisaged an eventual prize of lotto-winning odds and proportions in the form of The Open Championship... or could they?

Wilma continues: "The turning point was securing the 1993 Amateur Championship, here for the first time since 1960. It was deemed a great success by the Royal and Ancient and things escalated from there. We started to move up the golf rankings which meant more visitors and then, in 1995, we were awarded the British Senior Open which stayed for five years.

"The great Arnold Palmer came to play and, in the final year, Brian Barnes won the event, watched by his father-in-law, the legendary Max Faulkner, who won the last Open at Royal Portrush in 1951.

"That was the start of the American visitors. A trickle became a flood. Suddenly ourselves and Royal County Down were featuring among the top 12 courses in the world in respected publications like Golf Digest and Golf magazine. Playing our courses became seen as an experience.

"It is incredible to think a small country like ours can boast two world class courses. It is like having two Manchester Uniteds here."

The Royal Portrush success story did not happen overnight or by accident, though.

As Wilma explains: "You've got to keep attracting tournaments to secure your presence in the marketplace. So in 2007, we set up a sub committee to plan for the future with the Irish Open as an eventual aspiration. Then we thought why not aim as high as we can and set ourselves a target of bringing back The Open."

An enormous amount of work, aided and abetted by a tide of goodwill towards the club and its ambitions, saw the dream realised, but that was only the start.

Now Royal Portrush and its environs is preparing for the actuality.

So many influential people weighed in behind the bid, Wilma cannot name check them all in a single conversation. The triumvirate of Rory, G-Mac and Darren did their bit and Wilma is especially glowing in her praise for the role played by former First Minster Arlene Foster in securing financial backing from the Executive.

"Arlene did the deal in 15 minutes," reveals Wilma. "She has a big understanding of golf and its tourism benefits and quickly realised the potential for the economy in the worldwide media coverage The Open will generate.

"For example, it has been estimated that the average tourist coming here spends between £40 and £50 a day. A golf tourist will spend £600 a day on green fees, food, drink and accommodation."

Portrush's hosting of the 2012 Irish Open was another major factor, swaying The Open decision makers, with unsurpassed record crowds.

A gripe among local traders at the time was that not many golf fans made their way into the town and its businesses.

To this, Wilma contends: "You don't go to Windsor Park and nip out at half time to shop on the Lisburn Road. There is a bigger picture in the future benefits The Open will bring to this area in terms of tourism and more people wanting to play the course.

"We have fully engaged with the townspeople and the feeling is they have fully bought into The Open and what it will mean going forward. There is also huge excitement among our own members at the part the club is playing in staging something as big as this for Northern Ireland."

Translink, the PSNI and local hoteliers, for whom the event will be a bonanza, are now meeting regularly to ensure all runs smoothly for the biggest visitor influx the north coast will have ever seen.

At the golf club, even with the event two summers away, Wilma is busy planning; hosting fact finding tours, drawing up itineraries (on which the Bushmills Distillery features prominently) and preparing for the descent of the construction teams who will erect a 20,000 seater grandstand, hospitality village, media centre, lay miles of fibre optic cable and even a crèche for the young families of the competing golfers.

On the day we met in the excellent club restaurant, Wilma was hosting the English and French golf media teams, competing in their annual Writer Cup tournament, and the place was a hive of activity.

On her watch, Royal Portrush membership has grown to 1,400 and annual full paying visitor numbers to 17,000.

The wonder is she ever finds time to spend at home in Dervock with husband Ross Heggarty, himself well known in the hospitality industry as a brand manager for Tennent's NI.

She has promised, however, to row back once The Open has been successfully delivered. Retirement is not on her radar, though, as Wilma sees a gradual handover to a successor in much the same way as her good friend Mervyn Whyte, the North West 200 supremo, who coincidently will also bow out after the race's 90th anniversary in 2019, having overseen a succession into his job.

"We will go out together in a blaze of glory," Wilma laughs. "But seriously, I won't relax until the winning putt drops on Sunday, July 21, 2019 and I hope it is one of ours we are cheering."

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