Durban test a breeze for Clarke and Thornton
Darren Clarke enjoyed the opening round of the Volvo Golf Champions. Picture © Volvo in Golf

Darren Clarke enjoyed the opening round of the Volvo Golf Champions. Picture © Volvo in Golf

Wind specialists Darren Clarke and Simon Thornton flourished on a blustery opening day to keep leader Raphaël Jacquelin in their sights at the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa.

As Jacquelin finished with back-to-back birdies to card a five under 67 for a one-stroke lead over defending champion Louis Oosthuizen at Durban Country Club, slimline Clarke shot a 69 to share third place with Thornton tied for fifth after a 70.

Pádraig Harrington came back from two over after five holes to post a one under 71 as Michael Hoey shot a level par 72 thanks to three birdies in his last five holes.

But Clarke and Thornton were easily the happiest of the Irish quartet after battling testing breezes in the opening European Tour event of 2014.

Pádraig Harrington studies his birdie putt at the 18th.

Pádraig Harrington studies his birdie putt at the 18th.

"It was good," said Clarke, who has shed more than 40lbs since undertaking a strict fitness regime last October.

"I have played here a lot over the years. It might be my 13th tournament here so I know what the course is like and how difficult it plays in conditions like this. 

"It was a case of minimising any poor shots and keeping it in play and I did that today. I have had good and bad here but it is a tough golf course and when you get a breeze like this it makes it even more so." 

Unsurprised by his fast start to the year, Clarke said: "I've been working hard at home as much as weather conditions have permitted and my ball striking has been okay. Early in the season your timing is going to be a little bit suspect but all in all I hit a lot of really good shots."

As for his new physique, he said: "I'm feeling strong. I reached the 10th today into the wind - hit it 300 off the tee and driver off the fairway from 285 to 12 feet. I couldn't have reached that green five or six months ago so hopefully it will pay off. But it's still early in the season." 

Asked how much weight he'd lost, he said: "Enough. But a little more won't do any harm. I took a look at myself in October and thought I was too fat and that it was time for a change."

As Clarke made five birdies and just two bogeys, Thornton was just as pleased to erase three bogeys with three birdies and an eagle three at the par-five 14th.

"If you take the wind away, you take the course's defence away," said the Co Down resident. "But it was good with the breeze today. It suited my game and I'm pretty pleased with two under. 

"It was hard to judge a two-club wind, especially when you are sheltered on tees. Coming from Royal County Down, where I play when I am not at tournaments, it suits my game down to the ground. 

"Course management is key and you can shoot just as well not hitting driver anywhere. So if you hit it in the right places on the fairway you can score."

Thornton played just 27 holes in practice at home during his three-and-a-half-week winter break and could not have been more pleased with his start to 2014, especially in such august company.

"It was a great year for me and everything has continued on an upward curve," he said in an interview with European Tour Radio's Nick Dye, clearly delighted to find himself in an elite, 36-man field with no cut to worry about.

"It would be nice to have one of these every month. You can relax, knowing you can compete with these guys.

"They are all names - and all big names - but you have earned your place here and you can compete with them so there is nothing to lose really."

Like Thornton, Harrington found himself two over par early in his round but fought back with birdies at the sixth, eighth and ninth to turn in 35.

A bogey at the par-three 12th was countered with a birdie four at the 14th but he failed to pick up shots coming home, misreading a 12 foot birdie chance from the edge of the 273-yard 18th having bunkered his tee shot just left of the green.

The Dubliner ended the day tied for 12th with Hoey joint 17th thanks to a fine finish to a testing round.

The Belfast man had five bogeys and two birdies in his first 12 holes before finishing with birdies at the 14th, 15th and 18th.

Jacquelin, who earned his place in the 36-man ‘tournament of champions’ field by winning the 2013 Open de España after an epic nine-hole play-off, showed few signs of rust in his game following the winter break.

After opening with five straight pars, he birdied the sixth and eighth holes before the turn, then picked up further shots on the 14th, 17th and 18th holes for a five under par round of 67.

“I managed to get everything right today,” he said. “It was a bogey‑free round, and that was the key - to go every round bogey‑free on this course. It's a new year and it is pretty good way for me to start, so that's great.”

Oosthuizen took a little longer to get back into the swing, dropping a shot on the first hole, but the South African hit back with five birdies for a round of 68, as he attempts to become the first player to successfully defend the Volvo Golf Champions title.

“It was a rough start, and it’s not the easiest five holes to start the day with in that wind, but, I got into a rhythm quickly at about the third, or fourth hole and felt comfortable in the wind,” he said.

“I think level par, or one under, for me would have been a nice start just to get the tournament going. But once I turned, when I got to the 10th, I really felt comfortable out there. I still left quite a few birdies out there, and I didn’t really make any putts, but, I feel good.”

Clarke shares third position with Frenchman Victor Dubuisson while Thornton was joined in a six-way tie for fifth by Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie and the European Tour’s 2013 Rookie of the Year, American Peter Uihlein, who recovered from a triple bogey seven on the first hole.

Volvo Golf Champions at Durban Country Club (par 72)

Round one

67 R Jacquelin (Fra), 

68 L Oosthuizen (RSA), 

69 V Dubuisson (Fra), D Clarke (Nir), 

70 C Wood (Eng), J Luiten (Ned), P Uihlein (USA), S Thornton (Irl), T Fleetwood (Eng), M Siem (Ger), C Montgomerie (Sco), 

71 P Harrington (Irl), J Donaldson (Wal), D Van Der Walt (RSA), D Lynn (Eng), M Madsen (Den), 

72 M Hoey (Nir), T Aiken (RSA), P Casey (Eng), R Sterne (RSA), M Manassero (Ita), 

73 J Olazábal (Esp), M Ilonen (Fin), S Gallacher (Sco), D Fichardt (RSA), J Jeong (Kor), B Rumford (Aus), 

74 R Karlsson (Swe), J Quesne (Fra), B Grace (RSA), G Fdez-Castaño (Esp), C Schwartzel (RSA), 

75 K Aphibarnrat (Tha), 

76 M Jiménez (Esp), D Howell (Eng), 

79 T Björn (Den).