Graeme McDowell shrugged off a wayward day with the driver to shoot a two under 70 and trail defending champion Lee Westwood and Masters winner Charl Schwartzel by just two shots after the opening round of the $5m Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City.
As Open champion Darren Clarke continued with his post Claret Jug winning struggles to prop up the 12-man field after a 74, McDowell birdied the second, fifth and 10th to share the lead at the Gary Player Country Club before dropping his only shot of the day at the 13th.
Top prize in South Africa is a tasty $1.25m (the player finishing 12th gets $250,000) and a fistful of world ranking points and both Schwartzel and Westwood made ideal starts with four under 68’s.
Schwartzel was angry to go out in one over 37 when he followed a birdie at the fourth with a double bogey seven after a visit to water at the ninth. But he used his anger to rack up five birdies in a faultless back nine of just 31 shots.
“I got cross! I probably became fearless,” Schwartzel said. “Turning on one-over, I was not too happy with myself, I felt that I was playing better than that and sometimes that’s what you need to spur you on. I started releasing the club properly and was just firing at the flags.
“It didn’t look too promising after the turn, so I was happy with my finish. It gave me a nice positive vibe going into the next three rounds.”
Robert Karlsson hit a 69 to sit alone in third with McDowell tied for fourth with world No 1 Luke Donald, US PGA runner-up Jason Dufner, Irish Open winner Simon Dyson, Germany’s Martin Kaymer and South Korean Kyung-Tae Kim.
Anders Hansen and Francesco Molinari shot level par 72’s to share 10th with Clarke bringing up the rear after his two over effort in which he mixed three birdies with three bogeys and a double bogey.
But no one in the 12-man field is outside contention, with the gap between the leader and the last-placed Darren Clarke being just six shots.
The Open champion did not have the best of days, with three bogeys and a double-bogey at the par-four sixth, but the popular Northern Irishman ensured the rest of the field did not get away from him by finishing with a 74.