Charl Schwartzel (Getty Images)
Defending champion Charl Schwartzel set the clubhouse target in the first round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship on Thursday, despite failing to make the most of a blistering start.
Schwartzel won his first European Tour title at Leopard Creek in 2005 and triumphed by 12 shots last year, just a week after winning the Thailand Open by 11 strokes.
The former Masters Tournament champion has also finished second four times in what he unsurprisingly describes as his favourite event, one in which he was a cumulative 81 under par before starting his opening round.
And that total improved to 85 under thanks to a round of 68 that featured seven birdies, one bogey and one double bogey, giving Schwartzel a one shot lead over compatriot James Kingston and England's Danny Willett.
It could easily have been so much better for Schwartzel, who started from the tenth with five birdies in his opening six holes, before a bogey on the 17th saw him reach the turn in 33.
A double bogey on the first then dropped him back to two under par, but the World Number 21 responded quickly, holing from 12 feet for a birdie on the second to get back to three under par.
Schwartzel's round stalled with a run of four straight pars and another looked likely on the par three seventh, only for the 29 year old to hole from around 50 feet from just off the green.
At the time that left him one shot behind France's Victor Riu, but the Challenge Tour graduate then found water on the 16th to run up a double-bogey five and drop back to three under.
Ireland's Damien McGrane had also suffered a costly finish to his round, a triple-bogey seven on the ninth, his final hole, meaning he had to settle for a level par 72.
Riu birdied the 18th to join Schwartzel in the clubhouse lead on four under par, but both were then overtaken by Scotland's Chris Doak.
Starting on the back nine, Doak birdied the tenth, 13th and 14th and recovered from a dropped shot on the 16th with another birdie on the 17th and eagle on the par five 18th.
Another birdie on the first took the World Number 311 to six under par for a two shot lead with eight holes to play.
Riu’s performance was in stark contrast to last week’s missed cut at the South African Open Championship.
“Last week was my first event on The European Tour for this year,” he said, “and I was on a break in France for two weeks and I couldn’t train a lot because it was very cold.
“So it was a tough start for me, and after I missed the cut, I had last weekend and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to practice and it was much better today. I’ve got a bit more confidence.
“The course was playing very long, because the ball wasn’t running while it was cool this morning, but I was very happy with my driving. I was consistent and I was very straight.”