Making it through the storm

In January 2017, 84 days after losing his tour card by €100, Graeme Storm beat Rory McIlroy in a playoff to win the BMW South Africa Open and one of his best years on tour followed. A little more than four years on, and three wrist surgeries later, his journey to recover his position among the world’s best continues

The story of Graeme Storm’s career is one of tremendous highs and devastating lows. While the early part of his career brought success – including a first DP World Tour win in 2007 at the French Open – and he enjoyed a meteoric resurgence in 2017, the last four years have brought a great deal of challenge, pain, and doubt.

The story of Graeme’s career has been full of highs and lows – a route highlighted over 84 days at the end of 2016 and start of 2017. Playing the final regular event of the 2016 season, the Portugal Masters, Graeme needed a strong finish to secure his playing rights for 2017. 

In the end, he would fall short, and be left holding his head in his hands after making bogey on his final hole of the season to finish €100 short of keeping his card.

In the following days, Patrick Reed would provide Graeme a reprieve. The American failed to compete in enough events to hold membership of the tour and was removed from the order of merit. The change lifted Graeme into the top 110 on the order of merit, giving him full playing rights for 2017.

The reprieve was gladly accepted and Graeme travelled to South Africa in December 2016 – starting the new season with a T4 finish at Leopard Creek. 

“I had no expectations,” says Graeme on the first event of the 2017 calendar year- the BMW South Africa Open. “I’d played well at Leopard Creek before Christmas, but I was coming in cold from the break. 

“I hit the ground running, shot 63 on Friday, and took the lead. I felt a lot more comfortable with the lead than I ever had done. Going through losing and regaining my card helped. That reprieve was a chance to reset and look at the season long-term rather than the short-term view I’d had at the end of 2016.”

Freed from the pressure of trying to keep his card, and just 84 days after the crushing low point of Portugal, Graeme beat Rory McIlroy in a playoff to win the BMW South African Open.

The win ended a near 10-year wait for his second tour title, banked a healthy €165,000 cheque, and guaranteed his playing privileges until the end of 2018.

“I was fully in the zone,” says Graeme. “I hadn’t freewheeled in a tournament since I was an amateur, but that week I wasn’t flustered by playing with Rory – I actually really enjoyed it. I’d lost a playoff before, and I knew I had to play my own game. It takes a lot of experience to handle that pressure and know your own game like that.

“The win relieved all the pressure I’d been under. I was in every event and could play with a freedom I’d not had for years. The shackles tighten as you get older and you have responsibilities outside your own game – to remove them for two full years was a great feeling.”

Renewed, Graeme’s golf flourished in 2017 with top-10 finishes in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth (T6), the Portugal Masters (T3), the British Masters at Close House (T4), and the Nedbank Golf Challenge (T10).

Looking ahead to turning 40 in 2018, Graeme’s outlook was as positive as it had ever been. Then, at arguably the peak of his career, injury struck. 

Having flared up in May 2017, Graeme managed pain in his wrist throughout that year. “I’d had pain in my right hand since 2014 but had managed it,” he says. “When it came back in May 2017, it was different. It was manageable until the Nedbank at the end of season, where I hit a tree root and instantly knew something was wrong. The physios did an amazing job that week to keep me going.”

In agony and trying to minimise the number of times he took a divot, Graeme managed to finish in the top 10 that week. It would be his last top 10 for more than two years.

While preparing for the 2018 season back at Hartlepool, the pain grew unmanageable as a blockage of the carpal tunnel limited the range of movement in his wrist and made it near-impossible to swing a golf club. 

“I tried to play with it, but when we got to Morocco in April I couldn’t hit bunker shots because of the pain. I knew I needed help.”

In agony and barely able to play, Graeme had keyhole surgery to remove the blockage in July 2018. Painful rehabilitation followed, though Graeme was positive ahead of his return for the 2019 season with 17 starts thanks to a medial extension to his playing privileges.

While practising just three days before flying to Abu Dhabi for his first event back, a lump appeared. “It appeared instantly, like something out of a cartoon,” says Graeme. “It went down with ice, but I knew something major had gone wrong.”

Diagnosed as ligament damage due to the first surgery, a second, more invasive surgery was required. A longer and more painful rehabilitation followed, and Graeme was left with scar tissue on his wrist.

“I was hoping to be back in May 2019, but I couldn’t make a fist for weeks. The range of motion in my right wrist was always going to change, but the second surgery was the only way to return to the tour. 

“My swing has completely changed since the second surgery,” he adds. “It’s had to in order to compensate for the loss of motion. I’d always strived to swing the club shorter and be in better positions, but today I wish I could swing it with the freedom I used to.

“I have to use the big muscles more effectively now. It’s very difficult to change this late in a career and it’s been a long, challenging process. 

“There were points during the process when I questioned whether I needed to walk away from the game for good.”

Graeme would not return to competitive golf until January 2020. Due to his injury, he maintained his full playing rights through a medical extension – giving him 17 starts in 2020 to regain his form and earn enough ranking points to keep his card.

While he struggled to find form and consistency – missing the cuts in his first four events back – he remained positive about his progress. Then, having spent 20 months out of the game and played just four events of his return, Graeme – like all of us – was sent home as the Covid pandemic brought the world to a near-standstill.

“When Covid hit, the world stopped,” he says. “While the pandemic was horrendous for everyone, it put pressure on our family the same way it did to everyone, in the very small world of my golf game it really helped. It gave me time to continue my rehab and swing work rather than rushing back to try and earn my card.”

When the tour returned in July 2020, for the Betfred British Masters at Close House, Graeme finished in a tie for 10th place – his first pay cheque since April 2018.

“I played some good stuff when we came back, but it was always going to take time to build confidence,” he says. “I knew my short game would still be good and that’s something I still focus on a lot.”

By the time the tour returned to Wentworth in October 2020, the wrist injury flared up again.

“I was distraught,” says Graeme. “I’d warmed up great, I was ready to go on Thursday morning and something just wasn’t right. I was in agony, but this time the pain was on the palm side of my right wrist.”

Graeme withdrew after 14 holes and eventually went back under the knife a third time in January 2022. The lack of movement caused by the previous surgeries was now placing pressure elsewhere in his wrist, meaning this time the only option was to detach some of the nerves in his forearm. While the limitations in movement would remain, something which cannot be repaired, he would no longer feel pain in his wrist.

“The procedure carried out by Doug Campbell was remarkable,” says Graeme. “I retained all the sensation, but no longer had the pain. I still have limited movement, but losing the pain was amazing. I’ve since developed pain elsewhere in my hand as it copes with the pressure of impact, but that’s manageable with anti-inflammatories and painkillers.

“I’ve worked hard in the last few months and while going through rehab a third time has been difficult physically and mentally, it’s good to be able to practice without pain in my wrist.”

His third attempt to return from injury was never going to be easy and Graeme made two cuts on tour in 2021 – maintaining his playing status as the tour froze its membership categories. In 2022, Graeme was moved into a new playing category – dubbed the safety net by players – which allowed those outside the normal order of merit cut-off to retain limited playing status as they did not have the opportunity to regain their cards at Qualifying School.

“To have the safety net was great. Coming out of the medical extension, I needed an opportunity to play. I’m hoping to improve my category for 2023 through some good play. 

“I’m very much looking forward to playing as much as I can this year.”

While he remains fully committed to being a DP World Tour player – a status he has held since 2005 – Graeme has diversified his career following the injury.

He works closely with players under the management of ISM – nurturing young talent and supporting players while at tournaments. He has also worked on radio broadcasts for TalkSport and the BBC at the 2019 and 2021 Open Championships, and coaches at Houghton-le-Spring while not on tour – combining one-on-one sessions with his role as an ambassador for the Golf Foundation.

“Coaching has always been a passion,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot while playing on tour in the last 20 years and it is great fun sharing that knowledge and seeing golfers improve. It’s also great fun to be part of introducing the game to kids with the Golf Foundation.”

Graeme has also had tremendous support in the last four years.

“We’ve been through a lot as a family,” he says. “My wife, Sara, has been amazing throughout the injury and the setbacks. While there are a lot of negatives in the last four years, it has been great to spend more time with our children – something I didn’t think I’d get to do when I was playing so well in 2017.”

“Pete Cowen has also been a phenomenal support, as have my sponsors. To have the support of Titleist, FootJoy and Callaway has been fantastic. The team has been so supportive, particularly when I was at real low points. I’ve also had amazing help from Suit Direct. It’s heart-warming to have the support of a new sponsor – one which has had a Hartlepool connection for more than 70 years – as I try and make it back. I wasn’t an obvious player to work with after three wrist surgeries, so I’m incredibly thankful for their support.”

While his career and golf swing are very different than they were when he saw off Rory McIlroy, Graeme’s main priority remains being a DP World Tour player.

“Playing is what I want to do,” he says. “I want to compete at the highest level. The success of Richard Bland, who is five years older than me, has inspired me to keep working on my game.

“As a dad and husband, I need to be aware of things outside playing, so I’ve diversified a little bit and these things may become more important in the future. While I’ve been working on getting back, everything else I’ve done in golf has only inspired me to work harder.

“Right now, my goal remains the same as it was when I turned professional in 2000 – to be the most successful tour player I can be.”