Alan Hedley catches up with Graeme Storm – who delighted his fans and the world of golf with a fairytale comeback
It is surely one of the greatest comeback stories in golf – a remarkable turnaround from despair to elation.
The incredible turn of events is the stuff of comic book pages but Graeme Storm’s last three months are fact not fiction.
A stunning playoff victory over Rory McIlroy in the BMW South African Open resurrected Storm’s European Tour career and completed a journey he admits took him “to hell and back.”
It was a journey that lasted 84 days and saw the 38-year-old from Hartlepool plumb the depths of despair after losing his job then climb to the pinnacle of beating the player he rates as the best in the world.
When Storm bogeyed his final hole at the Portugal Masters last October, he knew he’d lost his European Tour card – by just €100 as it turned out.
It was a heartbreaking moment for the Rockliffe touring pro who has had more than his fair share of knocks and now faced a return to the tour’s qualifying school to rescue his career.
But then came an unexpected reprieve with American Patrick Reed opting not to play the required number of events needed to retain his membership of the European Tour, meaning Storm moved back in.
“When I bogeyed that final hole in Portugal I thought it was all over so I have to thank Patrick Reed for me being reinstated and getting my card back. I embraced the second chance with both hands,” said Storm.
“I had actually entered the tour school as a precaution but didn’t really want to go back there. It’s so difficult and there are so many good players trying to get on tour. It was a massive relief for me and my family to not have to do that. I thought I had lost my card and all of the privileges that come from playing on the European Tour – when that happens you realise that you can’t afford to lose it. It’s my livelihood and I have a young family to support so I can’t afford to lose my job.
“But with all that I am also trying to enjoy it a bit more as I am someone who gets down on themselves a little bit too much and puts pressure on myself.”
Just 84 days after he stood with his head in his hands on the 18th green in Portugal, a renewed Storm was beating McIlroy with three rock-solid pars in the playoff for the South African Open.
Victory ended a near 10-year wait for his second European Tour title, banking a healthy €165,000 cheque and guaranteeing his playing privileges until the end of 2018.
The change in Storm’s demeanour was obvious to anyone who knows him. With a renewed determination, and swinging it better than he has done in recent years, he got off to a flyer in 2017.
He finished fourth at Leopard Creek, winning €40,000, and really hit the straps at Glendower with a relaxed and assured performance.
Storm had to hold his nerve and par the 18th three times in a row to beat McIlroy, the clear favourite, in front of a gallery of thousands.
It was noticeable Storm never deviated from his game plan of leaving the driver in the bag at 18, avoiding trouble and concentrating on finding the middle of the green…and it worked when McIlroy missed his par putt at the third time of asking.
So what’s changed for Storm? Working with top coach Pete Cowan in Sheffield before he went to South Africa obviously helped as his swing was in great shape all week and there’s no doubt the sessions on the mental side of the game with Winning Mind’s Lee Cromble Holme played a part.
But it’s credit to Storm himself as he has done much to turn things around.
“Winning in South Africa was a dream come true, especially after what happened to me last year with my card,” he said.
“I really took a lot from that experience and told myself to try and grasp the opportunity of getting my livelihood back with both hands – and I have done that. It really meant everything to me to be back in the winner’s circle again.
“I have been to hell and back to be honest with you. It’s been an absolute rollercoaster over the last year and a half – especially the end of last year.
“Obviously, there was pressure when I was facing Rory but not the same pressure as trying to keep your European Tour card. That’s real pressure and something I don’t want to feel again for a long time. That said, it was probably the pressure of trying to keep my card that helped me get through the playoff and made it a little bit easier, but the nerves were still jangling.
“I managed to control them and made some clutch putts toward the end of the round which were massive.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. I hung in there and while I didn’t play my best stuff I knew if I could hang in there that I might get my chance – thankfully it came.
“It took some time to sink in, it was a bit surreal afterwards and I was in a bit of a daze. I was a bit speechless. It seemed incredible and I couldn’t quite believe it and before I knew it I was on the flight to Abu Dhabi so there was no real celebration although I did have a couple of glasses of champagne on the flight.
“It helped I was playing with Rory. I said to him in the walk up the fairway in the last playoff hole that it was actually the first time we had played together. To play 21 holes with him was just incredible. What a superb guy he is. An absolute gentleman.” There’s never been any question mark over Storm’s ability for a game he started playing at 11, but he’s often been far too hard on himself.
“I’ve not set any goals or targets. I’ve just decided to try and enjoy each tournament. I’ve taken a lot from what I did and it’s an old cliché but I’m determined to take each week as it comes.”
Storm admits he did think about walking away from the game at one time. He lost his card in 2001, but won it back and he worked at various jobs – including a cake factory – to make ends meet early in his career.
But along with the knocks, there have been triumphs. “Winning the British Amateur to get into the Walker Cup and then holing the winning putt in the Walker Cup was a massive achievement for me as was winning the French Open over the National course, which is some track.
“I’ve also had four holes-in-one – the first one in Morocco, I won a lamp, but then not so long ago I won a really nice car.
“I’ve also been fortunate to play with the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Rory and I’d love to play with Tiger Woods.”
In fact, Storm tipped McIlroy to win the tournament in South Africa despite taking a three shot lead into the final round.
When McIlroy found a horrible lie in a greenside bunker on the 17th, he made a bogey and that opened the door for Storm to then go on and force the playoff with a 71 to McIlroy’s 68. McIlroy, as ever, was generous in defeat and refused to blame a back problem, later diagnosed as a stress fracture.