Wilma Erskine: ‘The Boss’ at Royal Portrush

While last week’s debut of Trinity Forest represented the most-talked about new venue on the PGA Tour this season, next year that role falls to Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, which hosts the 148th British Open. That won’t be so much a debut as a revival, since the club was founded in 1888 and hosted the Open on the only other occasion that it left Great Britain, in 1951.

Geography isn’t the only way in which Royal Portrush represents a break with tradition. Most golf clubs in the U.K. and Ireland are run by an all-powerful secretary, and at elite “Royal” clubs that position has typically belonged to a gruff Brigadier General type, a dizzying combination of bluster and dandruff. Not at Royal Portrush, however.

Wilma Erskine is “the boss” at Portrush. That moniker stuck when, weary of guys coming into the clubhouse asking her if the boss was around, she would inform them that they were looking at the boss. She was 26 years old when she became the first female secretary at a Royal golf club. She’s 60 now and remains the only woman to have held such a position.

Erskine has a droll disposition and an impish sense of humor, necessary armor in a world where she often has been the only woman in the room. It has stood her in good stead through years of infrastructure planning meetings with the Royal & Ancient, which is committed to conducting three Opens on Portrush’s Dunluce links.

“They’re quite bemused by me. I’m more forthright sometimes than I should be,” Erskine said. “The Irish, we wear our heart on our sleeve. We’re enthusiastic and we want every event here to be 110 percent.”

She dismisses the sexism she has faced with a casual self-assurance.

“There are some skeptics out there who think ‘How can a woman do this job?’ Look, golf club management has changed,” she said. “The days of the club secretary out playing golf and drinking gin have long gone. It’s a business.”

And business is a lot better than it used to be.

When Erskine took over in 1984, Royal Portrush was a decaying institution nearing the end of its first century. It was a second club for many, and the first to be dropped in a tough economy. Visitors were rare. Just last week Erskine produced a club diary from 1985, with every tee time handwritten. She gave it to a new hire in the reservations department.

“See if you can find a fourball from America,” she instructed him.

Back then, Northern Ireland was 15 years into a bloody conflict that still had a decade to run. Golfers weren’t exactly knocking down the door on the northern side of the Irish border.

“There wouldn’t have been any Americans in those times,” Erskine said. “The business has completely changed in thirty-odd years.”

Now that available visitor tee times are as rare as Yanks once were, Erskine jokes that when a group calls she asks what year they want to play. Membership is robust, too, and shockingly inexpensive for those accustomed to the cost of country clubs in America. Annual dues are about $1,600. The initiation for new members varies with age and is a multiple of that annual fee (x2 if they’re in their 20s, x3 if in their 30s, to a maximum of x5).

“Royal Portrush always had a very diverse membership. They weren’t all stiff upper lip,” Erskine explains. “Obviously we have our ‘Sirs,’ but we’ve got ordinary working people as well.”

And major winners. Darren Clarke, the 2011 British Open champion, is a member and lives nearby. I asked ‘the Boss’ if Clarke is treated equal to other members.

“Oh no,” she said with a laugh. “He gets worse treatment.”

Erskine isn’t easily impressed by stature. Just ask Graeme McDowell. The 2010 U.S. Open champion grew up at the club and a few years ago reminisced about it as we played a round in Orlando.

“Wilma still treats me exactly the same as she did when I was a caddie there,” he told me with a grin.

European Tour player Soren Kjeldsen once dropped into Erskine’s office and said he’d been instructed to bid hello by veteran Northern Irish caddie Dave McNeilly.

“Whose bag are you on?” Erskine asked him.

“You don’t recognize them when they have their caps off! I think he’d won only a couple of weeks before on the European Tour,” Erskine said, only slightly embarrassed by the memory. “Easy enough mistake. Underneath, we’re all just the same.”

When the Open leaves, so will Erskine. She’ll be 61 by then, in the job 35 years.

“Let someone bring fresh ideas to the table,” she said, her voice firm with the authority familiar to members and major winners alike. “I want to have time for me.”

Golfweek, May 20, 2018.

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