Wilma Erskine: The Woman that Brought the Open Back to Portrush

Wilma Erskine, Secretary at Royal Portrush for the past 35 years, helped the club go from run-down to Open Championship ready

At the PGA Merchandise Show in January, Sam Baker smiled from his booth as Wilma Erskine posed for photos nearby with a replica of the Claret Jug. Baker, who founded Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions, a leading provider of international golf travel, has been sending customers to Royal Portrush Golf Club, where Erskine is club secretary, since 1992, during the height of “The Troubles” and when Portrush was considered a little off the beaten path on the northern edge of Northern Ireland.

“I remember she told me, ‘As far as we know, there’s never been an American in Sansabelt slacks shot in Northern Ireland,’” Baker says with a chuckle. “She’s the only one left from when I started my company in 1991. Secretaries don’t last that long.”

This one has. Erskine was just 26 years old when, in 1984, she became the first female secretary at a “Royal” club. She’s been a leading promoter of golf on Ireland’s north coast and the heartbeat of Portrush ever since. 

Wilma Erskine (Photo by Mark Jamieson)

“She makes everything tick,” Rory McIlroy says. “If I ever need anything at Portrush, Wilma’s the first one I ring. I don’t even call the pro shop. If you get on Wilma’s good side, you’re good to go.”

But don’t get on her bad side, says Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ and Portrush native, who along with his brother grew up hanging around the club. “She’s a dragon,” McDowell says. “She still treats me like I’m that 12-year-old boy.”

Ah, but he’d have it no other way. 

Growing up a farmer’s daughter from nearby Ballymoney, Erskine studied in Edinburgh and Bristol with an eye toward a career in the hotel and catering business. Despite being a non-golfer she was able to land jobs at two golf clubs before hearing of the position at Portrush. Her mother encouraged her to apply.

“I’ve been in golf for 40 years, 35 with Portrush,” she says. “I’ve seen it evolve from run-down to world renowned. It’s a great story.”

Hosting elite tournaments on the club’s Dunluce Links added to the club’s acclaim, beginning with the British Amateur in 1993 and followed by the British Senior Open from 1995–99 and 2004. In 2006, the club decided to make a play for the Open Championship, which has been staged outside of England or Scotland just once before—at Portrush in 1951.

“We all kind of said this is a little farfetched, but let’s go for it,” she says.

A successful staging of the 2012 Irish Open impressed the R&A but there was still the matter of accommodating all the demands of a modern Open. Erskine remembers a dreary day when R&A chief executive Peter Dawson and course architect Martin Ebert walked the course and conceived the idea of changing the routing: Using land that was part of the adjoining Valley course, two new holes were created as the 7th and 8th of the Dunluce, replacing the original 17 and 18.

“Peter Dawson was my man,” Erskine says. “He saw that I wasn’t going to let it go. He was coming up to retirement and he shared our vision.”

There were plenty of doubters and no shortage of obstacles, but Erskine and the club succeeded in landing the Open. 

“During the process, we added a new word to our vocabulary at the R&A and that is being ‘Wilma’ed,’” says Dawson. “That means being told to sit up, pay attention, and do what you’re told. I was ‘Wilma’ed’ on several occasions and I know I deserved it.”

Erskine, 61, is set to go out in style, retiring after Royal Portrush hosts the 148th Open Championship this July, but she may not be the retiring type. Asked what she plans to do when she turns over the keys, she smiles an impish smile and says, “Get a job.”