FOR the first time in a decade Graeme Storm will strike his first tee shot as a defending champion in Gauteng today, fully focused on making sure the last 12 months were just the start of an upsurge in fortunes.

Storm is back at the Glendower Golf Club where he memorably defeated Rory McIlroy in a thrilling play-off at the start of 2017 to claim only his second European Tour title; so to return to the South Africa Open is something a bit different for the man from Hartlepool.

The only other time he has had that experience as a Tour professional was after winning the 2007 French Open. He said: “I want to put on a performance, I don’t just want to go and make the numbers up, I am going to defend the title. It will be a strong field because a lot of the South Africans are playing this year … Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace as well, they will have seen what it was like last year with Rory.

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“I want to go back and defend the title the best I can. That’s not to say I am going to win it but I am looking forward to the challenge of trying. It will be more than ten years since I did that. I remember doing it in France, it was a great buzz. It focused the mind because you want to impress and prove you are a worthy champion.”

It will be hoped that, like last January, his display lays the foundations for another impressive year – and if there was to be any sort of progress made then, if you whisper it, he might even be in with a shout of appearing at the Ryder Cup for the first time.

This year Thomas Bjorn will be leading the European team into battle at Le Golf National; the scene where Storm enjoyed his first triumph.

Storm said: “In 2015 I got into the Race to Dubai, got an email from the European Tour and they said you need to go and get measured. I spoke to Darren Clarke, the captain, I said ‘I’m not making that team … do I need to?’ I went and got fitted anyway.

“I got the same email this year. After the year I’ve had, I’ve probably got quite a few Ryder Cup points but I never look. With the results in Portugal and at the British Masters, I’ve gathered up a few points but not nearly enough. They want me to go for a fitting and I said, ‘no chance’. Not after last time - it was the biggest curse of my career. No chance.

“I’m not even going there. I said to Thomas, ‘Forget it Thomas. You know and I know, I will not be in that Ryder Cup team come September’. That’s the end of that. If I get in it’s quite simple to get my measurements whenever you want. I’m not thinking about it.”

However unlikely it seems that Storm will earn a place either through the top four European Tour players or world rankings, Bjorn would still have four wild cards this year to pick. That is not the focus, who is smiling again and can’t wait to get going this week.

Storm said: “My goals are massively different. I feel like a different player to 12 months ago, it has given me the confidence again because I doubted myself. It was a long time coming that second win, when you are struggling to make cuts and money, it’s your livelihood and you know you have the family at home to support.

“I started to doubt whether it was the end. I managed to turn it round. I am not setting goals and targets because in 2016 it did and it nearly finished me off. It knocks me if I don’t reach my targets.

“I decided to go and play every week that came along, view every week as a new week rather than set goals and targets and look where it got me.”

  • Graeme Storm has also extended his work with nurturing young golfers in the North-East. As well as developing his Graeme Storm Junior Open (details on his website), he is now the golf consultant at Thorp Academy in Ryton as well as Dyke House College in Hartlepool.

“I love working with the children, sometimes it can be difficult because you want more from them, but I aim to do the best I can to help them improve,” said Storm, who will be working with Close House at Wynyard.

“I have always seen myself as being involved in the game outside my own career. Kids golf has become a passion of mine.”