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The Big Interview with European Solheim Cup team captain Alison Nicholas
Yorkshire has played a key role in the glittering career of Alison Nicholas. Now she tells TONY KELLY she wants that true grit to aid Europe’s Solheim Cup bid.
SHE may have been born in Gibraltar, but the cut of her golfing jib is hewn straight from the fabled and feted fairways and grand greens of Yorkshire.
Alison Nicholas has travelled the world excelling in a sport that captivated her from an early age after her parents’ encouragement and example.
She has conquered golf courses in her home country, across Europe, the Far East, Australia and, in the toughest of circuits, America, where an illustrious professional career was capped by her capture of the US Women’s Open championship in 1997.
But returning to her Yorkshire roots at a special Solheim Cup event at Fulford Golf Club, she readily acknowledged how her game was nursed, nurtured and knowingly navigated in what many Yorkshire folk immodestly describe as “God’s own country”.
Nicholas journeyed to Fulford GC in an initiative to swell interest in this year’s Solheim Cup engagement between the cream of Europe’s professional women and their American arch-adversaries at Killeen Castle just outside Dublin in just four months’ time.
Nicholas is the Solheim Cup European team captain, following on from her first crack at leadership two years ago when the Continent’s most talented clan were just edged out of victory by the USA.
Acting virtually as an ambassador for the September 23 to 25 showdown, captain Nicholas is taking to the task with missionary zeal, fired by her return to the county where her skill first sprung to national attention.
“My start in the game was in Yorkshire. I was a member of the Hallamshire Golf Club – I still am. I played for the county and I have so many fond and strong memories of Yorkshire,” enthused Nicholas.
“It’s always been a strong county for women’s golf and I think over the last 20 years they have reached the national finals an awful lot of times.”
She added: “That’s one of the great things about Yorkshire people. If they take to a sport then they are passionate about it. They are certainly passionate about golf and especially at a club with the heritage and tradition of somewhere like Fulford.
“This is such a lovely course. I remember always trying to come here every year to watch the Benson & Hedges tournament which was such a big event back then.
“It was a top-drawer tournament and I’d come along here to watch some of the game’s biggest names and personalities like Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and of course, Seve Ballesteros.
“Seve inspired everyone – not just the men but women players as well.”
Fulford and the like certainly had an impact on the burgeoning county player.
As an amateur she was British stroke-play champion in 1983 followed a year later by her triumph in the Yorkshire equivalent.
Such strides prompted Nicholas to turn professional and again she made a dramatic impression.
After winning the Weetabix Women’s British Open in 1987, Nicholas enjoyed a dozen years of distinction. Among her trophy acquisitions were the Lufthansa German Open, the Western Australia Open, the Malaysian Open, the Paris Open and the Irish Open before her glittering career culminated in bagging the US Open title in 1997.
Nicholas has also proved the consummate team player. She has the Solheim Cup coursing through her veins.
She has played in no fewer than six Solheim Cup match-ups – the victories of 1990, 1992 and 2000, intertwined with defeats in 1994, 1996 and 1998.
Such was her stature that she was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Honours’ List in 1998 for her services to golf. Four years later her peers recognised her contribution with life membership of the Ladies European Tour and within a year she was vice-captain of the European Solheim Cup team.
Her playing career drew to a close seven years ago, but the Solheim Cup keeps her in the heat of top-level irons and woods combat.
“Like the Ryder Cup, it’s just such a great event, a special team event where the match-play format gives it that special edge, that extra spice. The atmosphere it creates is second to none,” she said.
“The Ryder Cup is obviously the biggest team event, but we are getting there.
“Back in the first year in 1990 there were only about 300 to 500 spectators. But then in 2003 you were looking at 100,000 fans over the three days of that Solheim Cup.”
Back as captain, she also led the team in 2009, Nicholas said she was “humbled and honoured” to be able to lead the European ranks again. Currently she is mulling over who will comprise the eventual 12 with her final decision not having to be made until August 29.
Boosted by the current renaissance of the men’s European game with the top two rankings in the world now occupied by Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, Nicholas said the European women’s game was also on the up.
And that gave her extra confidence as the dedicated leader ahead of this autumn’s Killeen Castle Continental clan.
She said: “Being captain is pressure-packed, but having done it before I feel more relaxed about it. I know now what to expect.
“We’ve not won it on the last three occasions, but I am hoping we can bring the cup back to Europe, especially as we are ‘at home’ in Ireland.
“That’s why we are doing this type of event at Fulford to help to make supporters even more aware that if they can come and cheer us on it will help the team enormously. Our support can be our 13th team member, so the more we get there in Ireland, the better.”