Belgium's Nicolas Colsaerts leads the Volvo Golf Champions by four strokes after surging clear of the field with a course-record 64 at Fancourt in South Africa.
Padraig Harrington was three behind until he finished with a double bogey seven that left England's Tom Lewis and home hopes Thomas Aiken and Branden Grace in joint second.
Open Champion Darren Clarke managed only a 74, but that was one better than Masters Tournament champion Charl Schwartzel in the winners-only 35-man event.
Even allowing for the small field, Colsaerts' lead after day one was impressive, and there have only ever been seven events in European Tour history where someone has been further in front after 18 holes.
"Exceptional, but so is he," said Colin Montgomerie of Colsaerts' nine under par round.
"He is fantastic - potentially as good as it gets."
Despite such praise Colsaerts has only ever tasted victory once in nearly 200 European Tour starts and that will encourage the 34 players left trailing in his wake.
However, Open Champion Clarke already has ten strokes to make up - he was wearing contact lenses for the first time, but rustiness was his problem.
Until he reached the 549 yard 18th Harrington was the one doing his best at trying to reel Colsaerts in, but a bad drive and three putts led to a double bogey and a 69.
"Such is life," said the Irishman, 89th in the Official World Golf Ranking and trying to get back into the top 64 in time for next month's World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play in Arizona.
"It was a very comfortable six under for 17 holes, but it's a nasty tee shot and that was a mental error."
Instead England's Lewis and South Africans Aiken and Grace, who qualified by winning the Joburg Open on Sunday, share second spot.
Montgomerie played with Lewis and praised his performance.
The 21 year old led The Open Championship last summer - his first-day 65 was the lowest ever round by an amateur in the event - and then won the Portugal Masters on only his third start as a professional.
What particularly impressed Montgomerie was the way Lewis came back from a seven on the long 16th with back-to-back birdies.
"He has every opportunity to make you-know-what come September," said Montgomerie in reference to The Ryder Cup.
No European has ever gone from Walker Cup to Ryder Cup in a year - Rickie Fowler has done it for the Americans - and Lewis is not dismissing the possibility.
"If I play well there's no reason why not," said the Englishman.
The day belonged to Colsaerts, though, and perhaps it was no surprise given the sponsors. His only victory came in the Volvo China Open last April and a month later he was a semi-finalist in their World Match Play Championship in Spain.
The biggest hitter in Europe two seasons ago, he was looking forward to taking on Sandwich last July after finishing third in the Barclays Scottish Open the week before, but then came his infamous scooter accident.
After deciding a scooter would be the best way to get about for the week in Kent he tried to jump a kerb because of the traffic and came unstuck.
"I tried to hit a few balls, but felt a bit like a clown - I was hitting 160 yard drives," said the man used to blasting it twice as far.
Colsaerts was out for two months and has not had a top-eight finish since, but nine birdies in the last 11 holes reminded everybody what he is capable of.
He made twos on all four short holes and also birdied four of the five par fives.
A pair of 62s in Indonesia and the Netherlands remain his lowest scores on The European Tour, but he said: "This is probably the best round I've ever had - it's quite a serious test of golf."