Watch him on the practice range and you think, “what a nicely compact and efficient looking swing.” Which it is. Geoff Nicholas hits the ball with an enviable consistency and solidity just about any golfer would be happy to own. In that respect at least, the 57-year old Australian is like many good players. It is only after further investigation that his level of competency becomes something of a wonder, something truly humbling.
A victim of the morning sickness drug Thalidomide prescribed to his pregnant mother, Nicholas was born with deformities in both legs, especially his right, which was six-inches shorter than its counterpart. Eventually, after he had endured seven operations by the age of 13, it was amputated, the bones used to partially reconstruct his left leg. None of which has stopped him playing golf to an incredibly high standard. A member at The Lakes since 1981, he went on to represent his club and, later, New South Wales. But it was not until 1989 that he first played in competitions for amputees.
One year later, Nicholas won the (inaugural) British and U.S. Amputee Opens, the former by 13 shots and the latter by eight. Which is impressive enough. But it was only the start of an incredible run. He also finished first in the next 12 editions of both events. In 2014 he teamed with compatriot Shane Luke to claim the Disabled World Cup for Australia, a triumph to set alongside tournament victories in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan.
Perhaps most remarkably, Nicholas gained his card for the 1992 (able-bodied) Australasian Tour, where he twice played in the Australian Open and the New Zealand Open, making three of the four cuts.
“When I played, I was actually just satisfied to have qualified, which probably was not a good thing,” he says. “But when I was playing amputee golf, I knew how Greg Norman would have felt, I turned up, and I didn’t think anyone was going to beat me…I got this real confidence, it’s like you feel like you’re the king, in a nice way.”
Okay, enough of the history lesson. In the same week that the R&A and USGA announced a global ranking for “Golfers with Disability” that will be instituted next year, Nicholas and 11 other men who will surely feature highly on that list are competing here in the first-ever “Australian All-Abilities Championship” at The Lakes alongside the likes of Matt Kuchar, Keegan Bradley and all the rest of the field in the 103rd Australian Open.
For all, this high-profile recognition represents a significant moment. But for Nicholas playing on his home course, it was particularly emotional.
“It was brilliant out there, even if I was a bit nervous to start,” he said, after signing off his round of 79 by holing a 25-foot putt for a closing birdie on the par-3 9th, his 18th. “Even though I’ve played in a couple of Aussie Opens before as a professional, this was a really special day for me. The people in the crowds were very supportive to all of us – we can’t thank Golf Australia enough for backing this initiative.
“This is also a big step forward for us in a wider sense. It is so important for the public to see that people with disabilities can play golf and play it well. Hopefully we have motivated a few to give it a try for themselves. To be honest, that would be far more important than the score anyone shot today.”
Indeed, inspiring stuff.