Wilma Erskine commenced in golf club management some 36 years ago and began her employment at Royal Portrush Golf Club in January 1985. The club has revenue at approximately £4 million per year and she is responsible for running of the food and beverage operation, as well as the clubhouse and pro shop, with roughly 80 to 100 staff employed. Membership at Royal Portrush is 1600. The club has hosted many top championships, both amateur and professional, and seen the return of Royal Portrush moving up in the world course rankings following the return of The Amateur Championship in 1993.
This was followed by The Senior British Open Championship 1995-1999 and again in 2004 and the return of the Irish Open in 2012, which was the first time it was held in Northern Ireland since 1947, culminating now with the return of The Open Championship in 2019, which was last held in 1951 - the only time golf’s oldest major has been staged outside of England and Scotland. Erskine believes The Open will be the biggest sporting event ever to come to Ireland.
A major redesign of the Dunluce and Valley Links has taken place since the announcement by The R&A and Northern Ireland Executive in 2014. Given the interest in The Open, the R&A is expected to limit crowds to 50,000 per day. In addition, a new state-of-the-art Green Maintenance complex opened earlier this year with a £1 million refurbishment of clubhouse now complete.
The Erskine Story
Following secondary education, I completed a course in hospitality management in Edinburgh, followed by a post-graduate course in business studies at Bristol, which proved useful when entering golf management. In the past, Golf Club Managers/Secretaries came from a retired military or banking background, but with modern legislation the need for more up to date practices requires a more business-like approach.
I came from a sporting background and viewed golf as an interesting career as it’s not a Monday to Friday job, and I probably didn’t realise golf management, at that time, was so male orientated and often had retired persons in such roles. Clearly, it was a bit of a change to secure a job as a female aged 22, to say the least!
All I could see at that time was: why not? From my first job at Portadown Golf Club, an 18-hole parkland, I then moved to Massereene Golf Club and then finally in 1984 applied to Royal Portrush Golf Club as it was closer to my family. The rest is history. To enter into golf management is a way of life and completely removed from the erroneous thinking some people have that all one does is play golf all day and drink gin!
MW: You wake up in the morning - what’s the passion that drives you onward?
WE: To succeed in golf management, it has to become a way of life. Every day is different, which probably makes it more enjoyable. We have two businesses in that there is the private members club, and then from May to October the business with the visitors. I suppose I have a positive attitude in life and making people and members have an enjoyable day makes my job a positive experience.
MW: You’re Club Secretary at one of the finest golf clubs globally. What is the experience been like as a woman within the domain of a game historically male dominated?
WE: When I started back in the early 80’s, I didn’t see the problem being a female in a male dominated business and found the vast majority of my counterparts encouraging myself. I could only see the job and expectations. Some people think being a female is easier, but I can assure you it can be more difficult as there are a few who think ‘how could a female manage a golf club?’ and are waiting to see failure! However, only a few of those sort of people were in the mix. I suppose over the years the success of the club has proved women can be as successful as men and more are now entering the world of golf management.
MW: What are the key attributes and skills needed to be an effective club secretary?
WE: Patience, attention to detail, listening and being open to people’s thoughts and suggestions. Having a financial understanding and organisational skills and keeping in touch with your Committee are also important.
MW: Was there a specific moment in your career that proved you were in the right position?
WE: I’m never sure about being in the right job! However, the fact I’m still enjoying life after 30 odd years must say something.
MW: How much of an impact will hosting The Open in ‘19 be for the club and immediate area?
WE: The impact of hosting the 2019 Open Championship will be immense for Portrush, Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland! This is the biggest sporting event to come to Ireland and with TV coverage to 600,000 million homes world wide this will put us in the limelight and promote tourism. It will hopefully increase the club’s world ranking, which maintains our business and promotes the area and helps bring more business to other clubs in the area. Obviously, hotels, restaurants, and so forth, will all get a spin off from the golfers, and with the average per person spending being approximately £600/£700 per day, the economic impact to the area is immense.
The Northern Ireland Executive have also realised the impact of The Open and plan to spend in the region of £15 million by improving the infrastructure for 2019. The legacy of The Open and the fact that the agreement is for three times - subject to the first Open being a success - will keep Northern Ireland in a sound place for golf and tourism. Property prices are rising and more building going on with two new hotel applications submitted to planning and extensions of other hotels, so we are already seeing the benefits that The Open will bring to the immediate area.
MW: There were some changes made to the Dunluce Course for the ‘19 Open –what has been the membership reaction with the new holes and the ones lost?
WE: The membership have been kept fully informed throughout the process of The Open Championship returning to Portrush and this is most important as it is a private members club. The course architect and the R&A have met the members and presented the changes with full explanations and even invited members on course walks to explain the reason for the changes. The old 17th and 18th were in the past deemed a weak finish and the two new holes have fitted into the existing links and already look as if they have always been there! Consideration was taken by the architect that the course would not only be a championship links worthy of staging an Open, but also could accommodate the club golfer, and we are already receiving excellent feedback. The R&A have an excellent team who stage the Open and keep the club fully aware of their work and the expectation from the club, as we meet on a regular basis.
MW: What is the biggest challenge facing Royal Portrush and the surrounding area when hosting The Open?
WE: Ensuring everyone is catered for when coming to the Open through transportation, security, accommodation, and so forth. Meetings have already commenced some years ago between the different stakeholders such as Translink, PSNI, Causeway Coast and Glens Council and Tourism North Ireland. Doubts have been stressed over accommodation, but with Belfast now an hour away by car, Londonderry/Derry 40 minutes, three airports in N Ireland, two ferry terminals and train service into Portrush, we are well served to date. We don’t see problems - just solutions!
MW: The key golf organisations - USGA, R&A, PGA of America, Golf Union of Ireland - are all looking for ways to expand the game to groups such as women, Millennials and minorities. Given your experience in the game, what would you recommend them doing?
WE: Here at RPGC our coaching staff go to local schools and teach school children and in the summer camps to encourage kids from 7 years onwards. It is important to include all kids from different backgrounds and not to concentrate on members’ kids only so that the next Rory can be found. Golf has in the past been seen as elitist, and here at Portrush we are encouraging kids from all backgrounds and to make the experience fun! Golfing numbers have fallen since the economic downturn in 2007/2008 and we all need to encourage young people for the future of the game.
MW: If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally, what would it be and why?
I suppose I am a traditionalist in golf and enjoy the history of the game. To change, perhaps the structure within golf clubs needs to be reviewed to take in the business aspect of the game and running a club requires professional staff that encourages the appropriate training and appreciation of staff who work many long hours.
MW: Best advice you ever received - what was it and who from?
WE: Find out how the club operates, learn the traditions, and then make changes! Remember the club is bigger than anyone!