Bernd Wiesberger birdied the last in an opening 67 to take a one-shot lead into the second round of the Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player.
An elite field has gathered at Gary Player Country Club for the seventh Rolex Series event of the season and at one point seven of them shared the lead at the top of a congested leaderboard in Sun City.
A stunning approach to the 18th saw Wiesberger get to five under and break out of the pack as he goes in search of his second win in an incredibly consistent season.
The Austrian has missed just three cuts in 24 events and sits 12th in the Race to Dubai Rankings presented by Rolex, partly thanks to his victory at the Shenzhen International in April.
That was his fourth European Tour win, with his third having come at the 2015 Alstom Open de France, and a triumph this week would seriously boost his chances of making his Ryder Cup debut at Le Golf National next year.
Home favourite Branden Grace was a shot behind Wiesberger, with Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, Scotland’s Scott Jamieson and American Julian Suri all alongside him at four under.
Defending champion Alex Noren, South African Charl Schwartzel, England’s Graeme Storm and Japan’s Hideto Tanihara finished on three under.
A win for Tommy Fleetwood this week would wrap up the Race to Dubai title but his opening 73 left him six shots off the lead.
Bernd Wiesberger: It wasn’t easy to be honest. It was quite breezy, quite steady direction-wise, but still the course is quite tricky off the tees. You want to get a lot of fairways to be able to attack the flags, and that’s quite challenging when there’s gusty winds.
“I’ve not had great success when I was here last time, but I approached it with a neutral mind, and I played a lot better than I have the last couple weeks. I took a couple of chances, so that was nice to get out there kind of relaxed and just let it happen.
“It’s a golf course that challenges you from the first to the last, and you’ve got to be careful. The ball flies a long way, so that’s a factor as well. And today we managed to get it all together. Finally I made a lot more birdies than I have the last couple weeks.
“I don’t want to jinx it, but I felt like I found a little on the putting green again. A little more pace and confidence. I didn’t necessarily hit it super close but I holed a couple of 10, 12, footers and that was key to get a good first round going as I did today.”
Branden Grace: “The ball striking is there and I gave myself some chances up until the last hole really. It was nice to turn the round around and to finish with four under.
“It’s one of those where nobody is really going to run away with it, except for Alex Noren last year, really. I didn’t really do anything wrong the first couple of holes. Just a couple mistakes on the greens.
“It’s tough. It’s a brutal golf course. I think for a lot of the Europeans coming to South Africa, it’s a different grass and it’s tough to get your head around this place. Because it is so compact, really, between the mountains, it’s really hard to trust yourself out there with the wind.
“For me, it’s nice to be able to play in South Africa firstly. It’s my first start here this year. I want to make the most out of that one. I think it’s a grinder’s golf course. If you can keep it in play and give yourself some chances, I normally do well.”
Victor Dubuisson: “The goal this week is really to qualify for Dubai. So I think it’s a good way to start the tournament. It’s only the first round. It’s great to start like this because the birdies are not easy to do on this course.
“I really like this course. I think it suits my long game very well. I also feel very comfortable on the greens. The thing here is you really have to keep the ball on the fairway. If the driver starts to go wrong, you can do some really high scores. But for the moment, that’s what I focus on is just keeping the ball in the fairway, even if sometimes it leaves me a long second shot.”
Alex Noren: “I played probably the best I’ve played for a long time. I was very steady, a little better off the tee, which makes it a lot easier from there on. So yeah, I’m very pleased. Four under would have been great but I’m happy with three, and nobody’s kind of running away.
“It wasn’t that easy today. It’s tough to hit all the greens. You kind of hit over some and short some. They have got all these kind of edges to them. But you can make the birdies out there because the greens are good. Everything, the whole course, is in perfect shape.”
Complete first round scores:
67 B Wiesberger (Aut);
68 S Jamieson (Sco); J Suri (USA); B Grace (RSA); V Dubuisson (Fra);
69 C Schwartzel (RSA); G Storm (Eng); H Tanihara (Jpn); A Noren (Swe);
70 P Waring (Eng); M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra); R Fisher (Eng); M Fitzpatrick (Eng); N Elvira (Esp); L Bjerregaard (Den); C Shinkwin (Eng); L Haotong (Chn); L Slattery (Eng); F Zanotti (Par); L Westwood (Eng); P Uihlein (USA);
71 R Fox (Nzl); A Björk (Swe); D Fichardt (RSA); J Campillo (Esp); L Oosthuizen (RSA); J Luiten (Ned); T Olesen (Den); T Hatton (Eng); M Warren (Sco); S Kjeldsen (Den);
72 R Cabrera Bello (Esp); A Levy (Fra); C Wood (Eng); R Paratore (Ita); S Lowry (Irl); D Drysdale (Sco); M Pavon (Fra);
73 J Wang (Kor); H Porteous (RSA); T Fleetwood (Eng); F Molinari (Ita); D Horsey (Eng); M Kaymer (Ger); R Ramsay (Sco);
74 R Sterne (RSA); D Lipsky (USA); S Brazel (Aus); P Harrington (Irl); S Gallacher (Sco); E Pepperell (Eng); B Hebert (Fra); P Dunne (Irl); A Romero (Arg); A Otaegui (Esp); I Poulter (Eng); K Aphibarnrat (Tha);
75 G Bourdy (Fra); D Frittelli (RSA); M Wallace (Eng);
76 P Larrazábal (Esp); N Colsaerts (Bel); B Stone (RSA); R Wattel (Fra); E Molinari (Ita); J Smith (Eng); 77 D Burmester (RSA); G Coetzee (RSA);
78 A Dodt (Aus);
79 A Sullivan (Eng); T Bjørn (Den);
80 S Hend (Aus);