Golf: A turn for the better - Alison Nicholas - Giant leap for little big-heart

Milestones of '97: From the big server with a big future to the uneasy rider who nearly fell to earth
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It Was on Sunday 13 July, at Pumpkin Ridge's Witch Hollow course in North Plains, Oregon, that Alison Nicholas's year took a spectacular upwards turn as the golfing terrier, just 5ft "in my golf spikes", beat one of the legends of the women's game, Nancy Lopez, to win the US Open.

In being the only European to capture a major championship this year, Nicholas rightfully takes ascendancy over Colin Montgomerie, a heroic loser at the other US Open but Europe's five-time No 1, Lee Westwood, Jose Maria Olazabal, whose year instantly took on a different hue, and even Tiger Woods.

All the above received more publicity than Nicholas, who also won the European money list for the first time. This is not entirely because of prejudice in the media. Those who run the women's game on both sides of the Atlantic do not do themselves any favours by constantly scheduling their biggest events when attention is elsewhere.

The Dinah Shore, the LPGA's first major, is opposite the US Players' Championship, the US Women's Open took place the week before the Open Championship, and the Weetabix British Women's Open was the same week as the US PGA. The same clashes occur in 1998.

If Nicholas did not get the recognition that she deserved at the time, the end-of-year awards season has put that right: she won both the Golf Writers' Trophy and the Moet Sportswoman of the Year award. Speaking on radio last week, Nicholas said: "Someone told me if one of the men had won the US Open they would be on the front page of the newspapers. I was on the back pages, but then all the attention was on the Open at Troon."

In the last three years, Nicholas, a former British Open winner, had rekindled a stagnating career by turning to a fitness expert, Paul Darby, who is now her manager, and the coach Lawrence Farmer. But as a 22-handicapper in Sheffield - she turned to golf after conceding her stature was likely to impede her progress at tennis - it was a copy of Lopez's instruction book that was her initial inspiration.

Lopez, a heroine to women golfers for over 20 years, had never won the US Open. Three times she had come close, and at the age of 40, that was meant to be put right this year. Nicholas, who started the final day with a three-shot lead and holed a pitch for an eagle at the fourth hole, had other ideas.

Even with her lead cut to one stroke after a double-bogey at the 14th, Nicholas, a committed Christian, was calmed by the prayers that had been said for her by friends the previous evening. "I didn't panic," she said. "It's the nature of major championships that something unexpected is going to happen and you have to take it in your stride." Her Solheim Cup colleagues Laura Davies and Trish Johnson were on hand as the player known as "Big Al" tapped home her par putt at the last.

It was after beating her 6 and 4 in the singles of the Solheim Cup in 1990 that Lopez persuaded Nicholas not to give up on America after a disappointed rookie season on the LPGA tour. "I saw then that Alison was a fighter," Lopez said. "I thought she would do well."

"It's been the best season of my career," Nicholas said, "and obviously winning the US Open was the highlight. All I was thinking about was the title, not the money. It meant so much. My two goals at the start of the year were to get into contention for a major and to win the European order of merit for the first time. To win both was a dream."

Nicholas did not win in Europe, but her seventh top-seven finish in nine events at the Air France Open sealed her order of merit victory. Three times she had been runner-up, though of more lasting significance may be her work as a director of the Tour and her role in helping to appoint a new chief executive to succeed Terry Coates.

With the loss of Coates and his deputy, Gill Wilson, the overall sponsor American Express andone of the biggest events, the Hennessy Cup, it was not a good year overall for the game in Europe. Europeans in America did rather better, however, with Annika Sorenstam winning the money list and Lisa Hackney the Rookie of the Year. Good omens for the Solheim Cup at Muirfield Village in September.