Portrush en­joy­ing Open ef­fect

Cham­pi­onship will mark a fit­ting end to Wilma Ersk­ine’s 35-year term

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - DER­MOT GILLEECE

THOUGH the big event is still seven months away, Royal Portrush is al­ready ex­pe­ri­enc­ing The Open ef­fect. The year just end­ing has de­liv­ered record green-fee rev­enues of £3m, which is twice what they might have ex­pected be­fore land­ing their cov­eted prize.

“My mar­ket­ing bud­get has now been re­duced to zero,” the club’s sec­re­tary/ man­ager Wilma Ersk­ine mem­o­rably re­marked three years ago when news of 2019 was con­firmed. As a bonus, the mod­i­fied Dun­luce links is draw­ing rich praise not only from tourists, but from tele­vi­sion crews who ar­rived re­cently from both sides of the At­lantic and who are ex­pected back in the New Year.

The only down­side for those en­riched by Ms Ersk­ine’s ex­per­tise is her sched­uled de­par­ture. “Yes, I’m step­ping down af­ter it’s over,” she said last week. “I think it’s the right time to em­bark on some­thing else. Af­ter 35 years, I think I’ve done my bit.”

Then typ­i­cally, she couldn’t re­sist adding: “I’ve man­aged to sur­vive a lot longer than a lot of peo­ple. Now it’s time for some­one new, with fresh ideas. Hav­ing had The Open, what more could I ask for?” What in­deed.

She will be greatly missed. At the risk of draw­ing down the wrath of the sis­ter­hood, for a woman to have charge of the fi­nan­cial for­tunes of such an his­tor­i­cally con­ser­va­tive es­tab­lish­ment can have been achieved only by bril­liant stew­ard­ship.

Per­haps the key has been her even-hand­ed­ness, what­ever the cir­cum­stances. This, un­doubt­edly, has been fa­cil­i­tated by the fact that no­body in her po­si­tion, male or fe­male, has been ac­corded such au­thor­ity by an Ir­ish golf club, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the leg­endary south-west duo of Brud Slat­tery at Lahinch and Seán Walsh at Bally­bunion.

Much has changed at Royal Portrush since I first caught sight of it in July 1970 when cov­er­ing the North of Ire­land Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onship. That, in­ci­den­tally, was when John O’Leary led the qual­i­fiers on 142, two strokes clear of Brian Hoey, Michael’s fa­ther, who re­mains a fund of knowl­edge on the game. The ti­tle went to lo­cal man Johnny Faith, who passed from us a few years ago. In a dra­matic cli­max, he beat Roddy Carr on the sec­ond ex­tra hole.

The ex­panse of acreage which con­tained the 17th and 18th holes back then, is now largely level ground to ac­com­mo­date next July’s tented vil­lage. Only the re­mains of Big Nel­lie, the cav­ernous bunker threat­en­ing tee-shots on the long 17 th is still vis­i­ble.

“A lot of work went into flat­ten­ing that area and some time down the road, we’re look­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity of build­ing holes there for kids, for be­gin­ners,” said Ms Ersk­ine. “We’re also ex­tend­ing the off-course hos­pi­tal­ity area, and other more per­ma­nent ad­just­ments will be made af­ter The Open, es­pe­cially on the Val­ley Course.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant changes, of course, have been the in­tro­duc­tion of new sev­enth and eighth holes which in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of the ad­join­ing Val­ley Course, so fa­cil­i­tat­ing a fin­ish on the ex­ist­ing 16th which has be­come a suit­ably test­ing 465-yard par-four. Ac­cord­ing to Ms Ersk­ine, vis­i­tors have been as­ton­ished at how seam­lessly the changes have merged into the ex­ist­ing lay­out.

Half­way up the right side of the short sixth is the tee for a new par-five sev­enth of 572 yards, and the 435-yard eighth re­turns to a putting sur­face about 25 yards back, right of the ex­ist­ing sixth green.

The de­sign work was done by ar­chi­tect Martin Ebert, a part­ner in the prac­tice of Macken­zie and Ebert. His in­volve­ment was based on a lengthy as­so­ci­a­tion with the club go­ing back to their prepa­ra­tions for the 1993 Bri­tish Am­a­teur, when he worked with the more ex­pe­ri­enced ar­chi­tect Don­ald Steel. Those who con­sid­ered any tam­per­ing with Harry Colt’s mas­ter­piece as noth­ing short of van­dal­ism were gen­tly in­formed that the old eighth and ninth were, in fact, de­signed prior to the 1951 Open by prom­i­nent club mem­ber Tony Babing­ton, and erst­while club pro­fes­sional, PD “Ste­vie” Steven­son. As it hap­pens, the 16th, now the new 18th, was given the name ‘Babing­ton’s’ aris­ing from that work.

“Apart from the new holes, the over­all qual­ity of the course is to­tally dif­fer­ent than it was in 1970,” added Ms Ersk­ine. “Back then, there were prob­lems on the agron­omy side which weren’t a ma­jor is­sue be­cause we didn’t have many vis­i­tors. Now, with our cur­rent green-fee traf­fic, we have to have a course that’s in good con­di­tion 12 months of the year.”

She con­tin­ued: “There’s a brand new green­keep­ing com­plex, which is spec­tac­u­lar, and we’ve ren­o­vated the club­house. And the main fo­cus of our greens staff at the mo­ment is in what you might call fi­nesse work to en­sure that the bunkers, for in­stance, are in tip-top con­di­tion. Ev­ery­body seems quite pleased with the con­di­tion of the greens [which, we can take it, means they’re su­perb].”

It used to be cal­cu­lated by lead­ing re­sorts in the Repub­lic that play­ing host to the Ir­ish Open de­liv­ered a three-year div­i­dend in en­hanced green-fee in­come. As the 2015 club cap­tain at Royal Portrush pointed out, how­ever, The Open is rather dif­fer­ent.

Apart from con­tribut­ing more than €100m to the lo­cal econ­omy, it will se­cure the club’s fu­ture for the next gen­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Sir Richard McLaugh­lin. “Even in the depths of the Trou­bles, the 1951 Open con­tin­ued to bring peo­ple here,” he said. “And there’s no doubt that stag­ing the 2012 Ir­ish Open be­came a com­plete turn­ing point in get­ting it back.”

Which, as we are see­ing, is al­ready chang­ing a se­ri­ous im­bal­ance whereby the North, up to The Open an­nounce­ment, were do­ing about a tenth of the golf tourist busi­ness done in the South.

Mean­while, there are on­go­ing meet­ings with the Royal and An­cient, whose for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive, Peter Daw­son, took quite a leap of faith in re­turn­ing The Open to Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner’s tri­umph in 1951. Af­ter all the flak lev­elled at his or­gan­i­sa­tion over Muir­field, the mixed-gen­der is­sue formed an im­por­tant part of the orig­i­nal dis­cus­sions.

In the event, Daw­son was as­sured that Royal Portrush is most def­i­nitely a mixed club, though the lady mem­bers have long had their own sep­a­rate club­house, where, in­ci­den­tally, I hap­pened to en­joy ‘elevenses’ as a guest, some years ago.

The Royal Portrush con­sti­tu­tion states: “Mem­ber­ship of the club shall be in the fol­low­ing classes: Or­di­nary mem­bers, life mem­bers, hon­orary mem­bers, tem­po­rary mem­bers, club­house mem­bers, week­day mem­bers, stu­dent mem­bers, Great Bri­tain mem­bers, mem­bers of the Ladies Branch.” The ladies pay their fees to the club which over­sees them. Other cat­e­gories, in­ci­den­tally, in­clude res­i­dents of the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

“The R and A vis­its are be­com­ing more fre­quent the closer we get to the event,” said the sec­re­tary/man­ager. In fact, they came to Portrush for a meet­ing on De­cem­ber 12 and were back again last week.”

To my sug­ges­tion that she seemed to be calmly tak­ing all of this ac­tiv­ity in her stride, she replied: “That’s prob­a­bly be­cause we’ve been work­ing at it for so long. It’s not as if you take any­thing for granted, but you just get on with it. Go­ing back to the orig­i­nal an­nounce­ment in 2014, we’ve been work­ing con­stantly ever since.”

All of this pre-Open ac­tiv­ity has been tak­ing place against the back­ground of the club’s busiest sea­son ever. A hec­tic time was how Ms Ersk­ine de­scribed it, with tee-times on the Dun­luce stretch fully booked and taken. “We even had the sight last sum­mer of vis­i­tors go­ing out at 5.30 in the af­ter­noon, which has never hap­pened be­fore,” she said.

“Green-fee rev­enue of over £3m for the year is a lot of money — dou­ble what it was prior to the Open an­nounce­ment.”

As an in­ter­est­ing aside, there was a re­turn visit just be­fore Christ­mas of an NBC tele­vi­sion crew who were there a few months pre­vi­ously. “They’re blown away by the scenery,” said Ms Ersk­ine. “They can’t be­lieve the spec­tac­u­lar images they’re go­ing to be able to cre­ate. Sky have also been here, plan­ning where they’re go­ing to site the TV cam­eras. Both crews have in­di­cated that they will be back in the New Year.”

Was this usu­ally placid woman suc­cumb­ing to even a glim­mer of ex­cite­ment about the great­est achieve­ment of her ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­reer? “I’ll prob­a­bly be­come ex­cited when we get nearer the time,” she replied. “And pro­vided ev­ery­thing goes to plan, I can imag­ine my­self say­ing, ‘Wow! How good was that!’ when it’s all over.”

To which her many ad­mir­ers will be keen to cho­rus their agree­ment.

Apart from con­tribut­ing more than €100m to the lo­cal econ­omy, The Open will se­cure the club’s fu­ture for the next gen­er­a­tion

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