Alex Gleeson and John Ross Galbraith are just a shot off the lead after the opening round of the South African Stroke Play Championship.
Last year's Irish Close champion and runner-up respectively, they carded three under par 67s to share fourth place behind Edgar Catherine of France, Scotland's Liam Johnston and South Africa's Phillip Swanepoel at Kingswood Golf Estate in George.
Faithlegg's Robin Dawson dropped just one shot in a 68 to share 10th place on two under while a level par 70 by The Island's Kevin LeBlanc left him joint 30th on a packed leaderboard.
It was a mixed day for the rest of the Irish as world number 53 Stuart Grehan made five bogeys in a one over 71 for a share of 46th, and Colm Campbell and Colin Fairweather ended the day tied for 78th after three over 73s.
As for St Andrews Links Trophy holder Conor O'Rourke, the Naas man made two birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey six in a 75 and lies tied 103rd on five over par.
According to Lali Stander (on behalf of Golf RSA), joint leader Swanepoel was still on the alternate list just five days ago.
But on a day of blue skies and a stiff breeze, the 21-year-old Pretoria native fired five birdies on his back nine for a four-under-par 66 and a share of the lead with Catherine and Johnston.
“I made the alternate list at the qualifier at Wellington Golf Club on the 19th of January and on Friday, I got the call that I was into the championship,” said the industrial psychology student. “I owe Stefanus Bonifatius big time.
“I wanted to make the most of this chance, but I never expected to be in the lead. I guess there is something to be said for keeping your expectations low and just playing shot for shot.”
While it was Johnston’s first sight of Kingswood, Catherine played the course in 2013 as a member of the French team that contested the Ten Nations Cup – an experience he prefers to forget.
“It was terrible,” said the 18-year-old from the south of France. “I played the worst golf and I finished stone last in the field; what a great relief that I am doing so much better this time.”
The Frenchman started his run at pole position with an eagle at the par-five third, and offset a lone bogey at 10 with birdies at the eighth, 11th and 16th.
“That eagle gave me a good push,” he said. “I was in a good position after nine, even when the wind started pushing. The hardest thing was to understand the greens. Even if I played here before, we are not used to this grass. But I’m learning, and I’m happy. I made a much better start than before.”
Johnson said competing on similar greens during a four-year stint at Chattanooga University in Tennessee helped him to come to grips with the grain.
“I haven’t played on greens like these in two years, but having played them certainly helped,” said the 24-year-old Scottish senior squad member.
"The weather was good with just a breeze, so you had to take advantage. I short-sided myself at one par five and one par four, so I’m very pleased with the start. My only bogey was a three-putt at 14, but this was my first competitive outing since November last year, so I’ll take a 66 to the bank.”
Nel will start the second round with his Southern Cape Inter-Provincial team-mate Brandon Cloete for company, as well as Ireland’s Gleeson and Galbraith, Victor Veyret from France, Sweden’s Oliver Gillberg.
Gleeson birdied the par-five third, bogeyed the sixth and seventh but then birdied the eighth, ninth, 15th and 16th for his 67.
Galbraith started on the ninth and played his first nine in one over before picking up four shots coming home.
As for Dawson, the Waterford native dropped just one shot, on his sixth hole of the day, in a two under 68.
South African Stroke Play Championship, Kingswood Golf Estate (Par 70)
All competitors RSA unless otherwise indicated. Detailed scores
66 Edgar Catherine FRA; Liam Johnston SCO; Phillip Swanepoel
67 Alex Gleeson IRL; Andre Nel; Victor Veyret FRA; John Ross Galbraith IRL; Oliver Gillberg SWE; Brandon Cloete
68 Frédéric LaCroix FRA; Jeremy Freiburghaus SUI; Matt Saulez; Joseph Long GBR; Martin Vorster; Deon Germishuys; Robin Dawson IRL; Ludwig Aberg SWE
69 Eric Wowor; Marcus Svensson SWE; Luke Jerling; Craig Ross SCO; Barend Botha; Gregory Mckay; Pierre Pineau FRA; Steven le Roux; Marin Maeti FRA; Gerlou Roux; Luca Filippi; Dylan Kok
70 Dan Brown GBR; Erhard Lambrechts; Kevin Le Blanc IRL; Nicholas Mitchell; Jamie Stewart SCO; Richard Joubert; Viktor Hagborg - Asp SWE; Christo (Jnr) Lamprecht; Craig Howie SCO; Keelan van Wyk; Jayden Schaper; NJ van der Walt; Francesco Quirici SUI; Anthoine Auboin FRA; Byron Sampson; Kyle De Beer.
71 Stuart Grehan
73 Colin Fairweather, Colm Campbell
75 Conor O'Rourke