Sergio Garcia made eight birdies at the Nedbank Golf Challenge on Thursday. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/EPA

SUN CITY – His previous experiences around Gary Player Country Club helped Sergio Garcia to a first-round 64 on Thursday, and the blemish-free eight-under-par total saw him finish with a four-stroke lead in the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

He birdied the first hole of the day in a sign of things to come, and then twice reeled off three birdies in a row – between nine and 11, and again between 15 and 17 – to finish four clear of Finn Miko Korhonen, Mike Lorenzo-Vera of France and local Charl Schwartzel.

“I felt great,” said Garcia afterwards. “I rolled the ball nicely. I made some good putts here and there. One of those rounds where things kind of happened nicely to me.

“I think I played very smart. I probably wasn’t swinging unbelievably, but I kept it under control. I kept the ball in play all the time, which is difficult to do here.”

For Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion, and the winner at Sun City in 2001 and 2003, being able to read the swirling winds around a course situated in a bowl of mountains was key to his great start.

“I managed to guess some of the winds here right,” he said. “That is very, very difficult, and you know, when you can do that here, it’s nice to be able to shoot a score as I did.

“This is not a golf course that plays easily when it’s a little bit breezy like it was today. When it swirls, it’s even tougher.”

On a day on which many of the big names found trouble at least once or twice during the round – favourite Rory McIlroy made two bogeys and a double – Garcia’s performance was all the more impressive.

He didn’t try to overpower the course. “It’s very important to keep the ball in play as much as possible here and that’s what I was trying to do when I didn’t feel comfortable with the driver,” he said.

“If it got too narrow, I hit something less than that and tried to play the hole maybe a little bit tougher. It worked out well.

“I managed to keep the ball in play nicely. I hit a lot of greens, which is important to do here with the little spots that you can put the pins in, and I managed to roll some nice putts.”

His putting was certainly impressive, particularly on nine and 11.

On nine, he rolled in a 35-footer for eagle, and his birdie putt on 11 hit the hole at speed to go in. “Obviously they are not the kind of putts that you expect to make,” he said.

“But when you give yourself a lot of chances, obviously your possibilities of making them are a little bit bigger, and I was able to roll in three or four really nice putts.”

Behind Garcia, Lorenza-Vera was bogey-free for his 68, while Korhonen and Schwartzel each dropped just once.

A further stroke back on 69 was a group of six players, which included South Africa’s 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.

He got off to a fast start and was four-under after seven, but a bogey at eight seemed to unsettle him and he made just one more birdie and another bogey on his way home.

Defending champion Branden Grace carded a two-under 70 to find himself six off the pace.

While Garcia’s lead seems big, he of all people knows it’s not insurmountable. “It’s still the first day,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of golf to be played and a lot of tough days to come around. It’s nice to start like that, but I’m not going to lie. There’s still a lot of golf to be played.”

First-Round Scores:

64 - Sergio Garcia 

68 - Mike Lorenzo-Vera, Mikko Korhonen, Charl Schwartzel 

69 - Ashun Wu, Benjamin Hebert, Andy Sullivan, Matt Wallace, Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Scrivener 

70 - Ryan Fox, Branden Grace 

71 - Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry, Ross Fisher, Andrea Pavan, Jorge Campillo, Tapio Pulkkanen, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Haotong Li 

72 - Joost Luiten, Joakim Lagergren, Chris Paisley, Dean Burmester, Matthias Schwab, Aaron Rai, Richard Mcevoy, Rory McIlroy, Paul Waring, Renato Paratore 

73 - Sam Horsfield, Wade Ormsby, Dylan Frittelli, Padraig Harrington, George Coetzee, Andrew Johnston 

74 - Lee Slattery, Hideto Tanihara, Marcus Kinhult, Nacho Elvira, Pablo Larrazabal, Julien Guerrier, Shubhankar Sharma, Darren Fichardt, Adrian Otaegui, Brandon Stone, Trevor Immelman 

75 - Tom Lewis, Thomas Detry, Robert Rock, Oliver Fisher, Alexander Bjork, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Gavin Green, Lucas Bjerregaard, Nicolas Colsaerts, Maximilian Kieffer 

76 - Martin Kaymer, Lucas Herbert, Thomas Aiken, Thomas Bjorn 

77 - Erik van Rooyen, Richard Sterne, Jens Dantorp, Stephen Gallacher 

78 - Danny Willett, Paul Dunne, Ashley Chesters, Matthieu Pavon 

79 - Jordan Smith 

80 - Matthew Southgate 

81 - Alexander Levy

African News Agency (ANA)