Royal Portrush will prove it can deliver 'fabulous' Open Championship, vows manager
Club manager Wilma’s countdown pledge as united front swings into action
Royal Portrush Golf Club general manager Wilma Erskine, the lady tasked with delivering The Open Championship to Northern Ireland a year from now, believes a united front of professional agencies, backed up by a huge volunteer army, will make the biggest global sporting event ever staged here a 'fabulous success'.
The clock is now ticking audibly towards the event from July 18-21 next year, with a record 190,000 spectators expected over tournament week, an estimated economic benefit of £80m to the regional economy and worldwide TV audience of 600m.
Wilma, with 33 years experience running Royal Portrush, spent four days at last week's Open Championship at Carnoustie shadowing her Scottish club opposite number to gain a first-hand insight into how the massive event is hosted.
Widely regarded in Ulster golf as an extremely capable organiser, Wilma returned undaunted and increasingly confident that Royal Portrush will rise to the occasion as The Open makes a historic return to the province for the first time in 68 years.
"Thankfully there were no surprises," reported Wilma. "Everything was as we had been briefed to expect and now it is all systems go towards the 148th Open at Royal Portrush.
"I thought when Francesco Molinari raised the Claret Jug on Sunday evening, 'This is it!'
"We have been actively working towards hosting an Open since 2007 and have been planning in earnest since the Royal and Ancient organisers officially awarded us the event in 2015. Preparations are well advanced on and off the course and now we are ready to step up a gear as the one year countdown begins."
Letters will go out this week to local golf clubs inviting them to help provide an army of 1,200 volunteer marshals being recruited.
And when classes resume in September, schools in the area will be asked to provide 300 youngsters for litter collection and other light duties around the course.
The largest off-course input will involve various professional, statutory and commercial bodies coming together to complete the tournament week.
Wilma explained: “Police, Roads Service, Translink, councils and Tourism NI are all part of the equation. We are already working closely together and now our engagement will be stepped up.
“The R&A are to be commended for selecting Royal Portrush as a new venue for The Open in the modern era, and we are determined to live up to the faith they have placed in us.
“Some people felt Northern Ireland in general and Portrush in particular did not possess the infrastructure, in terms of hotels and transport network, to stage an Open.
“We will show that we are geared to making not just the next Open, but future events a fabulous success.”
Wilma used the opportunity of her Carnoustie visit last week to brief national and international journalists on the progress being made at Royal Portrush as the 12-month countdown begins.
A question frequently raised and fielded by Wilma is the one of non readmission to the course.
Once spectators have entered during Open week, they cannot come and go. If they leave at any point, they will not be readmitted at any stage that day.
It was a source of contention for some fans and especially local traders during the Irish Open in 2012.
But Wilma points out: “The greater commercial benefits for the area will be felt in the legacy of the tournament with visitor numbers and golf tourism boosted by the showcasing of the event worldwide.
“Golf fans, for the most part, attend tournaments purely for the whole golf experience.
“Let’s face it, no one goes to Windsor Park for a football game and nips out at half-time to buy a set of saucepans on the Lisburn Road.
“The event is first and foremost about golf. Everything after that is a bonus.”
Players, too, even many who have competed at Royal Portrush previously, are looking forward to teeing off at a new Open venue.
“Francesco Molinari, the new champion, mentioned he had played here at the Irish Open but had heard we had made changes since then,” Wilma added.
“I can promise even those who think they know Royal Portrush will believe they are playing a new course with the amount of work we’ve carried out here over the last few years.”
Wilma (59) plans to retire from front line golf administration following The Open next year but intends to continue to use her expertise in a consultancy capacity.