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Monday 5 December 2016

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Karl MacGinty - World of Golf

Published 13/09/2011 | 05:00

ACCORDING to that tired cliche, there's no I in team... yet many an international golf event would be lost without the Irish.

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Paul Cutler maintained this island's proud tradition on the global stage as he emerged as top scorer from last weekend's Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen.

Professional management companies will scramble for 22-year-old Cutler's signature after he brought his amateur career to a spectacular climax by contributing an unbeaten three and a half points out of four to Great Britain and Ireland's sensational 14-12 victory over the USA.

Paul McGinley, meanwhile, will be a key figure at this week's Vivendi Seve Trophy in Paris, as he captains GB&I's European Tour professionals in their bid to retain a title they won against the odds two years ago.

McGinley's credentials for the 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy at Gleneagles are strong already, though leading a team to victory over Continental Europe would be a significant feather in the Dubliner's cap.

Yet nowhere will Irish influence be exerted more strongly on a blue-chip international golf event than at next week's Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle.

Unlike the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, no Irish players have made it on the home team for an event which pits Europe's finest female professionals against their US counterparts every two years.

Instead, Europe's captain Alison Nicholas is depending on the Irish public to electrify the occasion and help power her 12-strong team to a first Solheim Cup victory since 2003.

The Yorkshire woman, a six-time Solheim Cup player who first took charge of the European side in Chicago in 2009, knows from experience how galleries can help tilt a match in one team's favour.

Two years ago, the match was finely balanced at midday on Sunday. Then it all began to turn in America's favour and the tidal wave of noise which went coursing around Rich Harvest Farms helped lift the home players and carry them from 8-8 overnight to a 16-12 victory.

"The crowds in Chicago were incredibly partisan, to the point where they cheered for every shot the Americans played, good or bad," Nicholas said. "And when you're hearing that around the course, inevitably, it has an effect."

The European captain has gone to astonishing lengths in her efforts to ensure her team benefits from the same potent force at Killeen Castle.

Nicholas travelled to golf clubs the length and breadth of Ireland in spring and early summer to drum up support in recessionary times for her team through the innovative Solheim Cup Ambassadors Programme.

From Waterford to Donegal and Royal Belfast to Killarney, Nicholas criss-crossed the country in an exhausting campaign which would leave candidates for next month's presidential election gasping.

Like their Ryder Cup counterparts, Solheim Cup players and their captains are not paid. Nicholas merely receives an honorarium to help cover expenses, and her stirring efforts as she hosted clinics at no fewer than 34 Irish golf clubs were motivated by passion, not money.

The Englishwoman's enthusiasm would prove infectious.

More than 80 ambassadors from around the country attended a lunch at this summer's Ladies Irish Open in Killeen Castle, where they pledged their support for a 'Fill the Bus' campaign aimed at bringing supporters from their own and neighbouring clubs to Killeen Castle.

Organisers say 60pc of tickets were sold by last week and they expect 80,000, including 7,000 overseas visitors, to attend the six days of the Solheim Cup (three practice days from Tuesday to Thursday inclusive and the match itself from Friday to Sunday, September 23-25).

The success of next week's event will be measured largely by the public's response. Should her team receive the support they need and deserve, much of the credit should go to Nicholas, whose devotion to the cause already far exceeds anything previously witnessed from a non-playing captain of the Ryder or Solheim Cup.

Typically down-to-earth, Nicholas herself doesn't make a big deal of her efforts. "It was brilliant fun and the clubs were superb," she said with a grin. "Everybody was just so hospitable. It's great to be able to engage with people and we all had great craic."

Among countless highlights was a chance meeting at Waterford GC with two craftsmen who made the crystal Solheim Cup; visiting the Padraig Harrington Museum at the Dubliner's home club, Stackstown, and learning of the history and traditions at many of Ireland's finest golf clubs.

"Above all, we'd a good laugh," she went on. "We talked about cricket, rugby, the visits by president Obama and the queen. I learned some words and new sayings, like 'everything is grand' and 'thanks a million', which seems so much nicer than 'thanks a lot', which we say in England.

"One lady asked me what handicap I was. You know, I don't expect everyone to know everything about golf. She was lovely.

croakey

"At Royal Belfast, I'd a cold and I was a bit croakey doing the clinic, so they gave me a hot toddy with Irish whiskey in it, which should have helped, God bless them," chuckled Nicholas, revealing she's not much of a drinker.

As for the serious business of drumming up support, Nicholas said: "This is going to be a very tight match and that's why the crowd is going to be massively important. We need all the ambassadors and all the people I met to come and support us; to shout and scream for us because it does lift the players, there's no question about that.

"I know Ireland is a proud country, you love your sport and you're passionate about it. You love to get involved and I wanted to encapsulate all those things, bring them together so the event will be known for the fantastic reception everyone got.

"What a great job Ireland did at The K Club and this is the same thing. I know you want to put on a good show."

That's the bottom line. Times have changed drastically for Ireland since 2006. Next week it's important to prove that, even in recession, this island is still a viable destination for major international sporting events.

Irish Independent

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