Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee defied strong winds to start the Volvo Golf Champions with a brilliant seven under par 65 in Durban.
Making his first ever trip to South Africa, the 43 year old former paratrooper led by five at one point but then Dane Thomas Björn cut the gap to two by following an eagle at the long eighth with back-to-back birdies.
Northern Ireland's Michael Hoey was four under with three to play, but blocked his drive at the 16th and then had another double-bogey on the 273 yard last after losing a ball in bushes.
That lifted Open Champion Ernie Els, out in a three under 33, into a tie for third with a group that included Scots Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson, England's Danny Willett and India’s Jeev Milkha Singh.
Jaidee, who qualified for the 33-strong winners-only field by capturing the ISPS Handa Wales Open in wind and rain last June, said: "I'm very happy with that.
"I enjoy the course. You have to think a lot - I hit the driver on only two holes and I put a three-iron in my bag only 15 minutes before we teed off."
Hoey came up with an unusual explanation for his bad finish.
"I felt so bloated," said the former British Amateur Champion, winner last March of the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco.
"I drank so much yesterday (when it was much hotter) and did the same, but I lost so much concentration. It was weird - I couldn't swing it properly."
Els, loser of a play-off to fellow South African Branden Grace at Fancourt last year, kicked off with three straight birdies, double-bogeyed the next, but as the expected rain arrived he picked up more shots on the seventh and ninth.
Jaidee was four clear when Björn bogeyed the 13th and 16th and Jamieson double-bogeyed the 16th, with eight players in a share of second place as a result of that.