Nicholas swings high to eclipse an idol

the British golfer who beat her mentor to claim the US Open
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There was something especially poignant about Alison Nicholas's one-shot victory over her idol, Nancy Lopez, in the women's US Open at Pumpkin Ridge on Sunday night.

For it was Lopez who persuaded Nicholas she was good enough for the US Tour when the English professional thought she would not return. And it is 40-year-old Lopez, the idol of the masses, who has still never won a US Open - the biggest prize in women's golf. This was the fourth time she has finished runner-up.

Lopez it was who put the LPGA and women's professional golf on the map 20 years ago, when she burst on to the scene by winning 17 tournaments in her first two seasons. She has 48 career victories.

With typical sensitivity in a her moment of triumph Nicholas, who was born in Gibralta but brought up in Yorkshire, graciously deferred to the icon she had beaten, as the tears of sorrow flowed from Lopez.

"I can understand the crowds wanted Nancy to win, but they supported me just as much," Nicholas said. "Nancy is a great champion, a great legend of the game and it was a privilege to play with her."

Nicholas's victory was all the more remarkable considering that she did not take up the game until she was 17. Until then tennis had been the main sporting preoccupation, but her diminutive stature - she is just 5ft - was proving a problem and she switched allegiance. On the golf course her size was far less of an impediment, and within two years she was down to scratch.

Sixteen years later she has joined her sport's elite, after remaining calm during a thrilling final day's play. Nicholas, who is known as a tidy, accurate and consistent golfer, is pound for pound one of the longest strikers off the tee, and was sometimes, to the amazement of the crowds, ahead of Lopez.

All the same, Sunday's victory required all Nicholas's fighting qualities, and even when she eagled the long fourth by pitching straight into the hole, she allowed herself only a sober salute of acknowledgement.

Paired with Lopez, Nicholas was three ahead going into Sunday's round and the American flung out a birdie from three feet at the first. While Nicholas eagled the fourth, Lopez birdied and still found herself trailing by three shots.

With precious little between them, Nicholas remained ahead and only at the 14th did her nerves jangle, as she wedged 20 yards over the green into some jungle-like rough. A penalty drop gave her a double-bogey and cut her lead to one shot.

A duffed chip meant that Nicholas bogeyed the 17th but, having found sand, so did Lopez and the American remained one shot behind. After two booming drives at the 18th the pair were still neck and neck, but Nicholas played the better second to the fringe, while Lopez had to chip from the right rough to 15 feet. The crowd was willing her to sink it to go into a play-off, after Nicholas had putted to a foot, but Lopez felt the tears pricking as her shot slithered past the hole.

"It was really fun. It's just a fantastic feeling to walk down those fairways trying to win the US Women's Open and I enjoyed every minute of it," Lopez said.

Nicholas hugged her caddie, Mark Fulcher, who was undoubtedly a key figure in her victory. A recent partnership, Fulcher used to caddie for Laura Davies. He is known for his positive outlook and is one of the best in the trade.

Mickey Walker, the former Solheim Cup captain, was quick to praise the performance of one of her team. "I was not surprised to see Ali win. She has been working very hard on her fitness and mental ability with trainer, Paul Darby, on her swing with Lawrence Farmer," Walker said. "Her biggest weakness used to be moaning and being down on herself. The way she carried herself and her whole demeanour last week, was most impressive."

Nicholas's breakthrough came when she won the 1983 British Strokeplay (she has also been a Yorkshire champion), but she was overlooked for the 1984 Curtis Cup and turned professional.

The first of her 12 victories as a professional came in the 1987 women's Open over the tough St Mellion course. Always a stalwart of the Solheim Cup in partnership with her great friend Davies - who stayed on to cheer Nicholas home at Pumpkin Ridge, despite having missed the cut herself.

Nicholas did not enjoy her first spell on the American tour in 1990, but Lopez was instrumental in persuading her to return in 1993 and she was rewarded with two victories in 1995. Her friendship with Betsy King in America has also taken Nicholas into the circle of Christians in Sport.