Courtesy Royal Portrush Golf Club
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 some £4 million per year and she is responsible for running of the food & beverage operation and 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. The culmination coming 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. Two new holes — the 7th and 8th — were added by architect Martin Ebert from the firm of Mackenzie & Ebert.
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 the Clubhouse now complete.
Courtesy Royal Portrush Golf Club
The Erskine story
Following secondary education, Wilma Erskine completed a course in hospitality management in Edinburgh, Scotland 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 required a more business like approach being essential.
Erskine came from a sporting background and viewed golf as an interesting career as she originally envisioned the position not being a Monday to Friday job, and she did not realize golf management, at that time, was male dominated and often had retired persons in such roles. For Wilma it was a bit of a change to secure a job as a female age 22 to say the least.
“All I could see at that time was why not,” said Erskine. From her first job at Portadown Golf Club, an18-hole parkland, she worked at Massereene Golf Club and then finally in 1984 when applying to Royal Portrush Golf Club since the location was closer to her 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,” said a grinning Erskine.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the passion that drives you onward?
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.
You’re club secretary at one of the finest golf clubs globally. What’s the experience been like as a woman within the domain of a game historically male dominated.
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 assure you it can be more difficult as there a few who think how could a female manage a golf club and likely waiting to see a woman fail! However, only a few of those sort of people were in the mix. I suppose over the years, through the success of the Club, has proved women can be as successful as men and more are now entering the world of golf management.
Curious to know — the key attributes and skills needed to be an effective club secretary are what?
Patience, attention to detail, listening and being open to people’s thoughts and suggestions. Having a financial understanding and organizational skills and keeping in touch with your Committee are also important.
Was there a specific moment in your career that proved you were in the right position?
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.
What would you say to women interested in being involved at the highest levels of club management or any other comparable position in the broader golf industry?
There is nothing for women to fear entering golf management. Golf has changed over the years and it is a business as well as a private members Club. At Royal Portrush Golf Club, we have a £5 million turnover and would suggest that the requirement to become a golf manager requires financial, knowledge of agronomy, understanding of golf, playing and traditions and hospitality and most important being able to listen and not act in haste!
Was there any person who assisted your career development as a mentor?
When I started way back in 1981 at my first Club, one of the members who has remained a very dear friend kept me right about golf and gave me advice. In order to become a manager of a golf club I would always advise to start off in smaller clubs to gain the experience and learn how golfers work and think!
How much of an impact will hosting The Open in ’19 be for the club and immediate area?
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 realized the impact of The Open and plan to spend in the region of £15 million by improving infrastructure for 2019. The legacy of The Open and the fact that the agreement for three future 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 benefit of The Open will bring to the immediate area.
There were some changes made to the Dunluce Course for the ’19 Open — what’s been the membership reaction with the new holes and the ones lost?
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 they have been always there! Consideration was taken by the architect that the course would not only be a championship links worthy of staging an Open but also can accommodate the Club golfer and we are already receiving excellent feedback. The R&A have a solid 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.
Up to what point on the calendar will members be able to play the Dunluce Course?
Members can play the Dunluce Links until June 30th and then the course will be closed to all. Visitors may still play in April and May but we introduced playing from mats on the fairways since last November. We want to show Dunluce in perfect condition for the players and television audience. We have communicated with the members about what is going on with the Links and they have been supportive of the actions adopted by the Club.
The biggest challenge facing Royal Portrush and the surrounding area when hosting The Open is what?
Ensure 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 just an hour away by car, Londonderry/Derry 40 minutes, three airports in Northern Ireland, two ferry terminals and train service into Portrush, we are well served to date. We don’t see problems — just solutions.
Key golf organizations — 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 they be doing?
Here at RPGC our coaching staff go to local schools and teach school children and in the summer camps to encourage kids from seven years onwards. 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.
Curious to know — when you’re not at Portrush — what activities do you enjoy doing?
I enjoy cycling, going to the gym, socializing and even golf although I’ve struggled with lack of time over the past few years and a bad knee which hopefully will be sorted before The Open. We have a house in Spain and enjoy time off and golf in the better weather. I am also on a Government Board as a non executive for Sport Northern Ireland and also organize a charity golf event yearly for Air Ambulance and advise on Tourism Northern Ireland for golf strategy.
If you were not doing what you’re doing now — what career would you have gravitated toward?
When young and at school I loved sport and always keen to do something within this area. Loved horses, but my father being a farmer didn’t see that as a career and I veered towards physiotherapy and ended up in Edinburgh doing business and hospitality followed by a post graduate at Bristol in business and management. The courses actually worked perfect with golf management.
Is it fair to say — assuming all works well with this year’s Open — that the club would be interested in hosting future ones?
The Club as part of the negotiations with The R&A have agreed a three-time agreement for The Open to return to Royal Portrush Golf Club. Following 2019 and if The 148th Open is deemed a success media and financial for all concerned, then a timeline will be set for the next Open. It is a fantastic legacy for Northern Ireland.
Golf fans from around the world will be either on-hand or watching on television this year’s Open. What message do you wish to convey to them regarding Royal Portrush?
I hope golf fans will see the most wonderful natural golf course with stunning views of Scotland, Donegal, The causeway, Dunluce castle amongst many. The course will find the true champion if the wind blows which is part of playing the Dunluce links — it is a gem. So don’t tell too many people!
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.
What’s the most enjoyable and hardest aspects to do in your position as Club Secretary?
I suppose being in the business, I must love the job — no two days are the same and the business has changed dramatically over the last 30 plus years and become more business orientated. I have had the opportunity to attend some wonderful events such as the Ryder Cup, the Masters, US Open and other Opens.
Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
Find out how the club operates, learn the traditions, and then make changes! Remember the Club is bigger than anyone.