Darren Clarke was struggling with blistered feet as he opened with a two under par 70 in the $1m Thailand Golf Open at Amata Spring Country Club.
The Ulsterman, who will conclude the most disappointing season of his career in Australia’s PGA Championship next week, made five birdies but still ended the day five strokes behind stablemate Charl Schwartzel. Scores
The South African, who was distant second to Lee Westwood last year, fired a seven under par 65 to lead by a shot from 20 year old Thai Thitiphun Chuayprakong with Spain’s Javier Colomo and Swede Daniel Chopra tied for third on five under.
Schwartzel, who has finished fifth, third and second in his last three events, continued to show form that earned him his first Major win last year after recovering from a chest injury which affected much of his game this season.
“I’m just playing injury free and that’s allowing me to swing the club better,” said Schwartzel, who made seven birdies in an immaculate round. “When you are playing with injury, you always try to protect that injury and the consequence is a bad swing.
“In the last month and a half I’ve been able to get my swing back to where I want it to be. My consistency is coming back and that’s the key for me.”
Seeking his first win since the 2011 Masters, he added: “It is nice to put yourself in position. You won’t win a golf tournament in the first round but you sure can lose it. I’ve got no expectations.
“I feel that if I continue to play like how I did then I can find the result which I’m looking for. It is still early days to predict anything right now.”
Masters champion Bubba Watson shot a 68 to share fifth place with Sergio Garcia a shot further back after a 69.
The American made an eagle and six birdies but also had four bogeys on his debut in the event.
“It didn’t feel that good,” Watson said. “It was a solid round but I made a few mistakes. Hit a cart path and bounced into the woods and had to take an unplayable and had a three putt on 17. Just little things like that. I finished with a birdie on the last so all in all, I guess it’s not too bad.”
Clarke ended the day tied for 10th with the likes of defending champion Westwood and Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa after a round featuring five birdies and three bogeys.
He started brightly with two birdies at the first two holes, bogeyed the fifth and then followed a birdie at the par-five seventh with a bogey at the short eighth to turn in one under 35.
He dug deep on the homeward half, picking up shots at the par-five 11th and the 13th, where he holed a 15 footer from the fringe for a two to get within four shots of clubhouse leader Schwartzel.
The Dungannon golfer couldn’t pick up another shot at the par-five 15th, flying his third well beyond a tight front pin before deftly chipping stone dead from just off the back of the green.
But he bogeyed the par-three 17th and then hit the hole with a 10 foot birdie chance at the last as he seeks his first win since last year’s Open Championship.
The Ulsterman revealed after the Pro-Am that his blisters would not stop him competing this week.
“I have blisters on either heels so I’m wobbling around a little bit,” he said. “I’m starting to swing the club a little bit better. My feet will be sore but I will be carrying on.”
At the Nelson Mandela Championship at Royal Durban, the first event of the 2013 European Tour season, no play was possible due to waterlogging.
While the tees and greens were perfectly playable, torrential recent rain has left the fairways and rough in an unplayable condition, meaning a day off for Ireland’s Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie.
Tournament director Mikael Eriksson told Sky Sports: “The fairways are very waterlogged. The course hasn’t improved as much as we hoped it would overnight and further rain early this morning put us back another few hours.
“The forecast wasn’t bad at all for today and we hoped the course might have dried out a little bit more, but it hasn’t actually.
“We tried early this morning to shorten the golf course, made a couple of par fours into par threes, one par five into a par three as well, in an attempt to start, but with the additional rain as we were trying to restart it didn’t work.
“The good scenario is that we start at 6.30am on Friday morning, play the first round tomorrow, the second on Saturday, have a cut and then go from there. We are still hoping to get 72 holes in.”