If one had asked Graeme Storm just 11 weeks ago how he would feel playing and beating Rory McIlroy in a playoff for one of the oldest titles in golf, the Englishman would probably have cursed the question as being a sick joke.
That’s because on October 23 last year he had bogeyed the last hole in the Portugal Masters to finish in 112th spot on the Race to Dubai – just 100 euros from keeping his card. And yet he was at Glendower Golf Club on Sunday in the final three-ball in the South African Open, thanks to a late reprieve as American Patrick Reed did not play in the required five tournaments to maintain his place on the order of merit, allowing Storm to move up and claim the final card.
But the fairytale story got even better on Sunday as he held off world number two McIlroy after 18 regulation holes and then three nailbiting playoff holes to win the second oldest national open.
“To beat Rory when I don’t have a good record in playoffs, it’s surreal, unbelievable. I didn’t play my best golf all day but I just hung in there and it’s a dream come true. Of the three major tournaments I’ve won – the British Amateur, the French Open and now the South African Open – they’ve all been very traditional, everything about them makes you really want your name on the trophy.
“The pressure was great and I was nervous, but my experience in Portugal last year helped, that was real pressure – playing for my life, to stay on tour and be able to pay the bills – and then squeezing in through the back door. But today I showed that I deserve to be here,” Storm said after his first win since the 2007 French Open.
If McIlroy could replay two shots on Sunday it would probably be his second shots on the last two holes in regulation play.
On the par-three 17th, his tee-shot found an awful lie on the side-wall of the greenside bunker and he took two strokes to get on to the green. The resulting bogey left McIlroy all-square with Storm going down the final hole.
But McIlroy immediately bombed a monster drive down the middle of the 18th fairway, only to let slip his advantage with an iffy approach shot that left him with much the same 30-foot birdie putt as Storm and young Jordan Smith, who had played superbly to lie one behind the leaders in just his fifth European Tour event.
Smith, the 2016 Challenge Tour champion who had eagled the second and 15th holes in the final round, had to be content with third place, one shot out of the playoff, the bogey he made on the penultimate hole costing him dear.
The playoff highlighted the remarkable consistency and tenacity in sticking to his game-plan of Storm. On all three extra trips down the 18th hole he found the same portion of the green, between 25-35 feet right of the flag, while the tremendous driving game of McIlroy mysteriously deserted him.
On the second playoff hole, McIlroy had to play a remarkable second shot from under the branches of the trees right of the fairway just to stay in the contest; his next drive also went right but only as far as the semi-rough, but his approach was short of the green and he failed to make the six-footer for par his chip left him.
The McIlroy putt shaved the hole, as did Storm’s birdie effort moments earlier, but the star attraction of the SA Open was magnanimous in defeat.
“That bogey on 17 cost me, but Graeme played well all week and him winning is a great story after so nearly losing his card last year. I’m really pleased for him to win on his first week out this year.
“I wish I could have done something more, but it’s not a bad way to start the year and I played well,” McIlroy said.
“I just had to stick to the game-plan and hope my way would work because I can’t drive the ball like Rory can. In the playoff I was just trying to hit the same position on the green and I did that. I stuck to the game-plan of just hitting greens, even though it left me with long putts,” Storm said.
“The relief is great but I would have much preferred to have made my putt rather than Rory missing his. And he was very unfortunate to have a terrible lie like the one on 17. But it was an absolute pleasure to play with Rory and even better to beat him. He’s the best driver in the world, there’s no doubt.”
Other key moments were the clutch 10-footer Storm sunk for par on the ninth hole – his 50th hole without dropping a shot – and which kept him one ahead at the turn.
McIlroy then had a six-foot birdie putt horseshoe out of the hole on the 11th, before Storm three-putted from the fringe for bogey on the 14th and then missed a 12-foot eagle putt on 15, while McIlroy made a remarkable birdie from under the trees way right of the fairway.
“I thought my chances had gone with that three-putt on 14, my only bogey since the first round, but I was able to stick to my strategy and I’m over the moon after the last few years have been a grind and last year was especially tough. But I came through and I would love to build on that,” Storm said.
Of the other challengers heading into the final round, Jbe’ Kruger had three successive bogeys from the third hole and subsided to a 76, leaving him on nine-under, nine off the pace.
Edoardo Molinari could only shoot a 71 and finished in a tie for seventh on 13-under with Alexander Bjork (68), David Drysdale (69), Mikko Korhonen (70), Joel Stalter (71) and Peter Uihlein (71).
Dean Burmester finished as the leading South African, his 69 putting him in fourth place on 15-under-par, while Romain Langasque faded with a 75 and Jaco van Zyl finished in a tie for 18th after a 74.
South Africans Thomas Aiken and Trevor Fisher Junior finished in a tie for fifth on 14-under after both shooting 69s, and threatened to contend without managing that extra gear to lift themselves up the leaderboard.