From Royal Portrush to Dunluce Lodge, Open Championship ‘boss’ Wilma Erskine is a golf and tourism great - Anne Hailes

Wilma Erskine was a key figure in bringing golf’s Open Championship to Royal Portrush in 2019 and now she’s brand ambassador for the luxury Dunluce Lodge hotel being built on the edge of the course ahead of the Open returning in 2025

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Former boss of Royal Portrush, Wilma Erskine. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Wilma Erskine, pictured in 2019 just before the Open Championship arrived at Royal Portrush. Today the former secretary-manager of the famous links course is brand ambassador for the Dunluce Lodge hotel, which is nearing completion beside the fourth fairway

Many women working in a man’s world encounter difficulties, often facing intimidation and being badgered; to succeed they need to be strong, know their business inside and out and, above all, remain professional.

Ballymoney-born Wilma Erskine is the epitome of that successful woman, having spent most of her working life as manager of Royal Portrush golf club where, before she moved on to other challenges, she oversaw the oldest golf tournament in the world, the celebrated Open Championship.

It returned to the course in 2019 and the BBC’s Stephen Watson said that her legacy was her drive to bring the Open back to Portrush after 68 years: “It simply wouldn’t have happened without her.”

She worked in golf club management for 40 years; first with Portadown, and then Massereene Golf Club before at the age of 27 she joined Royal Portrush, one of the game’s most prestigious clubs. It opened in 1888 and was the home club of Fred Daly, who in 1947 became the first Irish winner of the Open Championship.

Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed on the 18th green at Royal Portrush in 2019. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed on the 18th green at Royal Portrush during the 2019 Open Championship (Margaret McLaughlin)

Despite the Royal Portrush’s prestigious history, Wilma claims she didn’t anticipate any drawbacks to being a female dealing with high powered businessmen, whether as members of the club’s board and committees or as members. She does, however, agree that working in an overwhelmingly man’s world had, and has, certain drawbacks.

“I didn’t consider myself a woman in this instance, rather a position,” she says. “I grew up fighting my corner, I’m a doer, working in the background.”

But that wasn’t always possible, especially during the 2019 Open when media from all round the world took her into their hearts - they saw how she made things happen and was prepared to talk to them about day to day events.

The magnificent Royal Portrush golf course which is set to host The Open again in 2024
Royal Portrush golf course

“I worked with them so they had the best view of what we were doing and achieving, so they would go home impressed with what we’d achieved. I think it was the Washington Post who said of me, ‘She was only a farmer’s daughter but she sowed a seed’”

Being a media darling caused some jealousy but her thinking is if you have a dream, then go for it, and despite her father advising a career in nursing or teaching, instead she studied business and economics in Bristol and Edinburgh before taking on the Portadown job and learning the ropes of golf club management. She still plays when she gets the chance and boasts a 21 handicap.

The Best Of The Best

She was known as ‘The Boss’, working with the like of Gary Player, Tiger Woods, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy. Wilma was especially delighted to spend time with the 2019 winner, Co Offaly man Shane Lowry, who won over many non-golfers as he shared his delight with friends and fans - a glass in one hand and the Claret Jug in the other, standing on a table and singing The Fields of Athenry with great gusto.

Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Picture by David Davies/PA
Shane Lowry celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush (David Davies/PA)

A golf club of this standing needs an organiser with multiple skills and as secretary-manager of Royal Portrush, Wilma left her mark; she calls it ‘the St Andrews of Ireland’.

When in 2019 she decided to stand down, her success in bringing the club to Open status didn’t go unnoticed, especially by two young venture capitalists from Dallas in the United States.

They had played at Royal Portrush and been impressed by the friendly and efficient manager and they didn’t forget her so, when the entrepreneurs talked of returning to ‘the Port’ to build a luxury hotel, their conversation included Wilma Erskine.

The Dunluce Lodge hotel in Portrush is scheduled to open later this year

Soon she was included in their dream: a luxury hotel set in beautiful surrounds, looking out over the Skerries, the Atlantic and on to Donegal, and when a nine-acre site at the fourth fairway became available, Jonathan Harper and Robert Covington snapped it up. Today, their vision has almost come to fruition. However, they needed someone on the ground to make sure their hopes were realised - and who better than Wilma?

Completion Is At Hand

And it’s impressive: a 35-bedroom hotel, a spa, private suites, a putting green and a lot of luxury, a major tourism attraction and a golfer’s dream when in 2025 the Open Championship returns to Portrush. There is an investment of £16.5 million but multi-million pounds will be returned to the Northern Ireland economy.

Dunluce Lodge
How the rooms will look at the luxury Dunluce Lodge

Dunluce Lodge has given employment to many during construction and around 80 staff will move in shortly before an autumn opening.

During building up the status of the golf club and now representing the five-star hotel, Wilma has had her hand on the tiller, guiding the massive organisation required to make a success of the two ventures, so much so that she was recognised in the 2020 New Year honours with an OBE for her services to tourism and golf.

As brand manager for Dunluce Lodge she now works to bring worldwide golf tour operators to the area, she’s the local ears and eyes - and who better?