Damien McGrane in action in Singapore last season. Photo Eoin Clarke/www.golffile.ieSimon Thornton celebrated his return to the European Tour with an opening four-under par 69 in the Africa Open but Damien McGrane’s poor 2011 form followed him into the New Year and a one-over 74 at East London Golf Club leaves him in danger of missing the cut.

The 40-year old Meath man came close to losing his European Tour card last season and hoped to get his 2012 campaign off to a fast start after a year of troubles on and off the course. But despite getting to one under par with four holes to go, he double bogeyed his 15th hole and then signed off with a bogey to finish the day 10 strokes behind South Africa’s Thomas Aiken in joint 136th place.

It was just the kind of start the Kells player could have done without after losing his putting touch to finish 115th of the 118 who kept their cards last term. But there was also off course financial pain in the shape of the headline-grabbing collapse of his former sponsors Custon House Capital (see news of the Ponzi scheme-style disaster here and here), followed recently by the demise of his management company.

There were no such problems for Newcastle, Co Down based Thornton, who regained his card through the Challenge Tour rankings last season.

The Huddersfield native became a father for the first time during the Challenge Tour’s Grand Final and he was in good form in his first outing of the year though he would have been hoping for more after getting off to a blistering start.

The 33-year old birdied five of his first eight holes to get to five-under par before slipping back with three bogeys and two birdies in his last 10 holes.

That left him tied for 25th and five strokes behind pace-setter Aiken, who fired a nine under 64 to lead by a stroke from two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen and another South African, Jaco Ahlers.

Former Ryder Cup hero Phillip Price, who held on to his card by the skin of his teeth last year, shares fourth place alongside two more South Africans in Michael du Toit and Dean O’Riley after a seven-under 66.

“I wasn’t really expecting that after two weeks without touching a club,” said Aiken, who had two eagles and five birdies in a bogey-free round. “It was a great morning this morning – early start, and the scoring conditions were good. It was out there for the taking and luckily I hit some really good shots and made putts.

“I really enjoyed the round today; this is not the longest course, but it bites if you go skew. Anything off the line on this course is pretty much a reload off the tee, which makes it a thinking man’s course. 

“There are a lot of risk-and-reward holes – a couple of driveable par fours and tricky par threes – and I think that a lot of new courses lack that challenge.”