Durban - Former paratrooper Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand fired a seven-under-par 65 on Thursday to take a three-shot first-round lead in the Volvo Golf Champions.
South Africans Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen share second place in a tournament confined to 2012 European Tour winners and golfers with more than 10 career triumphs on the circuit.
Scots Scott Jamieson, Paul Lawrie and Richie Ramsay were third on 69 with Jamie Donaldson of Wales, Dane Thomas Bjorn, Jeev Mikha Singh of India and Englishman Danny Willett.
Live scoring from Durban Country Club
Video highlights: Volvo Golf Champions, Day 1Irish pair Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry shot a 70 each as did Robert Rock of England and Italian Francesco Molinari on a wet, windy day at the 6 111m Durban Country Club.
SA’s Branden Grace, the defending champion, who won five times on the European Tour last season, opened with a three-over 75 to trail pacesetter Thongchai by 10 strokes.
"I enjoyed the course which requires you to think a lot," said the 43-year-old Thai.
"I used a driver only twice and found a three iron I put in my bag just before teeing off very useful."
Thongchai took advantage of less challenging early conditions to snap up eight birdies and the only blemish on his card was a solitary bogey as he seeks a sixth European Tour victory.
The Thai, who made the elite 33-strong field for the first tour event this year by winning the Wales Open in windy and rainy conditions last June, said playing in Europe helped him cope with the unseasonal Durban weather.
"We play in conditions like this much of the time in Europe. A key factor in my good round was the three iron, which I used a lot off the tee," said the golfer ranked 80 in the world.
Birdies at the second, third, fourth, seventh and eighth holes saw the Asian turn with a five-under 31 and he collected more at the 10th and the testing par-three 15th before dropping his only shot at the tricky penultimate hole.
Els, beaten by Grace in a playoff last year, and Oosthuizen closed with birdies to boost chances of another South African victory in the €2m championship.
Scores from the European Tour Volvo Golf Champions at the par-72 course on Thursday in Durban:
65 - Thongchai Jaidee (THA)
68 - Ernie Els (RSA), Louis Oosthuizen (RSA)
69 - Thomas Bjorn (DEN), Jamie Donaldson (WAL), Scott Jamieson (SCO), Paul Lawrie (SCO), Richie Ramsay (SCO), Jeev Milkha Singh (IND), Danny Willett (ENG)
70 - Padraig Harrington (IRL), Shane Lowry (IRL), Francesco Molinari (ITA), Robert Rock (ENG)
72 - Rafa Cabrera-Bella (ESP), Retief Goosen (RSA), Michael Hoey (NIR), Colin Montgomerie (SCO), Julien Quesne (FRA), Henrik Stenson (SWE)
73 - Nicolas Colsaerts (BEL)
74 - Paul Casey (ENG), Jose Maria Olazabal (ESP), Marcel Siem (GER)
75 - Darren Clarke (NIR), Gonzalo Fdez-Castano (ESP), Branden Grace (RSA), Jbe Kruger (RSA), Matteo Manassero (ITA), Thorbjorn Olesen (DEN)
76 - Ricardo Santos (POR), Bernd Wiesberger (AUT)
78 - Darren Fichardt (RSA)