Wilma Erskine has the title of secretary manager at Royal Portrush, and she can’t count the number of times she’s been asked if she’s the typist or assigned to answering phones.
But she’s the person in charge at the prestigious golf club, and a huge reason that the British Open has returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly seven decades. The only other time it was played outside of England or Scotland was in 1951, at Portrush.
“People said you’ll never get it, that it’s too big an event for Northern Ireland,” Erskine said this week, looking out the window from the second floor of the clubhouse with rain whipping sideways. “But I think we can do it. We just need to get this weather sorted.”
Erskine, 61, for years the only woman in a male-dominated world of running golf clubs, has won over doubters before. She started at a small club at age 22, moved on to a slightly larger one, then took over at Portrush at 26.
“I couldn’t do that now,” she said. “I’ve grown with the job. It’s a way of life.”
Not for much longer. She’s retiring in the fall after 34 years at the club. She’s been made an honorary member, the first woman afforded that distinction, and plans to move on to another career.
“I’ll get a real job; this is a fun job,” she said. “I’m a director on a couple of boards, strategy, finance. I’m going to be joining a hotel board. I’ve got some plans.”
There couldn’t be a better time to drop the mic and walk offstage. She just brought the biggest event in the history of Northern Ireland, or Ireland, to the Emerald Isle. That, in turn, changed Portrush to the tune of $21 million.
“It was a run-down seaside town, that’s what it was,” she said. “Now it’s a desirable place to buy a second home for retirement. And it’s sort of an in town to come and visit.”
That said, she isn’t going to sit around and marvel at the accomplishment this week.
“Everybody says, `Are you excited?’” she said. “I don’t get excited. I’ll get excited on Monday after it’s all finished.”
Nor does she take all the credit.
“We have gotten a lot of help from the government, tourism, the local council, members, and the R&A,” she said, referring to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which oversees the Open Championship and its “rota” of locales.
Erskine said Portrush is in line to play host to three Opens, subject to the R&A and the club being in agreement.
She has a no-nonsense style mixed with a wicked sense of humor and can cut a deal for a major championship one moment and raise a pint of Guinness in the clubhouse bar the next.
“I’m a position, not a person, remember that,” she said. “I’m the secretary of a club, I’m not a female. What’s this gender bit all about anyway? It’s a job. You’re there to do the job.”
Everyone around the place knows her as simply Wilma.
“I always hated my name,” she said. “I was supposed to be a William, after my dad. Wilma’s a bit of an unusual name. If I’d been a Jane, nobody would remember a Jane. But I was Wilma. The Flintstones. So it’s sort of a Wilma brand.”