Welshman Rhys Davies was delighted to card an opening 66 in the Joburg Open as he tries to revive his career on the European Tour.
Davies won the Hassan Trophy in Morocco in 2010 and recorded three runner-up finishes that season, including the Wales Open at Celtic Manor after a closing 62 to make him a contender for Europe’s Ryder Cup team at the Newport resort later that year.
But after missing out on Colin Montgomerie’s side and finishing 56th on the money list in 2011, Davies lost his card at the end of the following season and only regained it last year after two wins saw him finish eighth on the second-tier Challenge Tour.
The 30-year-old missed the cut in his first two events of the season, but six birdies and one bogey on the West Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington left the former Walker Cup star – who beat Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler in the singles at Royal County Down in 2007 – just two shots shot off the clubhouse lead held by South Africa's Justin Walters.
“Whenever you can go around a golf course in 66, you’ve obviously done some good things well,” Davies said. “It was quite tricky this morning I have to say.
“Normally the conditions are a little bit more favourable, especially in the morning. We had a decent wind, but having said that I managed my game well and rolled in some nice putts.
“I’d say today I scored really well. I hit some very good shots, but I hit a few poor ones as well, which I may have got away with at times.
“But I also hit a few good putts that lipped out, so you know the game comes and goes. So I was pleased with it and like I say you can always improve, but I’m not going to get too hard on myself.”
English duo Anthony Wall and David Howell were part of a six-way tie for second on six under, with England's Ross McGowan joining Davies on five under thanks to five birdies, two bogeys and a hole-in-one on the fifth on the East Course.
Kevin Phelan was the best of the Irish after the first round, carding a three-under 68 on the West Course.
After missing out last week with food poisoning, Paul Dunne opened with a one-under 71 on the East Course, a score matched by Ruaidhrí McGee and Michael Hoey.
Ninety nine of the 210-strong field broke par, with South Africa Open winner Brandon Stone carding a two-under 69 alongside his idol Ernie Els, who was three under par after nine holes before dropping shots on the 11th and 13th.
Els missed the cut last week after suffering from another attack of the yips in the opening round, but the 46-year-old has vowed to overcome the problem and was putting cross-handed after accepting a late invitation into this week’s event.
Els, Howell, Jaco van Zyl and Paul Lawrie are the only three players in the field currently guaranteed a place in this summer's British Open, with three places at Troon up for grabs for anyone, not already exempt, finishing in the top 10.
Former Open champion Lawrie marked the start of his 25th year on the European Tour with a two-under-par 69.
After a flawless round containing four birdies and an eagle from five feet on the 15th, Howell revealed a more forgiving approach had been key to his success.
“I wrote in my yardage book today to just be my own best friend, not to be too hard on myself, and really try and not care about the bad shots and focus on the good ones,” the former Ryder Cup player said.
“We’re always trying to be like that, but it doesn’t always pan out that way, but I made a concerted effort to really be very kind to myself today and when I did hit a poor shot I moved on from it pretty quickly.”