There were times when it seemed inevitable that Graeme Storm would succumb to the pressure exerted on him by world number two Rory McIlroy.
But the Englishman who hung on to his European Tour card by the narrowest margin last year held his nerve superbly on Saturday to finish the third round of the BMW South African Open with a three-shot lead at Glendower Golf Club.
Storm only held on to his card thanks to American Patrick Reed not playing the required number of tournaments in order to qualify according to European Tour rules, and it seems those tough times of anxiety and uncertainty have made him a better golfer.
He has been masterful around Glendower Golf Club this week, with three rounds in the 60s leaving him on 17-under-par and three ahead of McIlroy.
Storm’s 67 on Saturday was bogey-free, making it 41 holes without a dropped shot.
“I’m really pleased that I managed to keep the momentum from yesterday’s 63, especially since I’ve only been in this position a couple of times in the last few years. But I have a new lease on life after I thought that I had lost my card and all my privileges,” Storm said on Saturday.
“I certainly felt the pressure, no doubt, but I’m always a bit nervous when I play, so I’m used to it. There was less wind earlier on, and on a course that is very scoreable, you could try to push too hard. But I just stick to my own game-plan, plod around the course trying to hit the middle of the greens and take my chances,” the 38-year-old said.
McIlroy mixed the sublime with the mere mortal, collecting five birdies and pitching in for eagle on the par-four seventh hole, but bogeys on the ninth and 18th holes mean he will have to make up a three-shot deficit in order to make his trip to South Africa a winning one.
The tournament organisers are just delighted of course that he is playing and in contention on the final day, after he raised the possibility of withdrawing after the second round due to a bad back.
By the end of the third round, McIlroy seemed confident the worst was over in terms of his back pain.
“The back was pretty bad this morning and I didn’t sleep much overnight, I was so uncomfortable I got up to take some painkillers. But the physios have done some good work and thankfully I was able to get round. I took some anti-inflammatories on the sixth hole and the back felt quite good on the back nine, hopefully the problem is subsiding,” McIlroy said.
The Northern Irishman gave a magnificent display off the tee, but a couple of wayward iron shots caused problems, but there is no doubting McIlroy has the tools to go really low in the final round.
“I’m very pleased with the round, it was a decent score, although it could have been a couple shots better and I wish I was one or two shots closer to Graeme. But I’m still in with a shout and that’s all you can ask for.
Storm knows that he will get tested more than ever before in Sunday’s final round, but his strategy will be to keep playing within himself.
“I haven’t played with Rory before and I don’t know how many fans I’ll have in the crowd! But if I can keep the bogeys off my card and have another sub-70 round tomorrow, then I’ll be quite happy.
“I’ll just clap and say ‘well done’ to Rory if he starts playing great shots and whether he or anyone else beats me, I can only control how I play. Plus I’m going to really enjoy playing with him,” Storm said.
Other golfers would also get close to Storm during the third round, with Peter Uihlein matching him with three birdies on the front nine, but his back nine was scrappy, with two bogeys, three birdies and a double-bogey on the par-three 17th as he finished on 12-under-par, five behind, after a 70.
Jbe’ Kruger made a charge with four successive birdies from the 12th hole, but a bogey at 16 killed his momentum and he finished in the tie for third on 13-under-par after a 69.
Trevor Fisher Junior was one behind Storm at the turn, but then came home in 38 with bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes, to finish on 11-under-par after a 71.