Branden Grace heads the South African charge after Thursday’s first round off the Nedbank Golf Challenge, hosted by Gary Player, as he opened with a 68 to place him only one stroke of the lead.

Grace overcame a shaky start in which he was two over par through his first four holes, and then made four birdies and an eagle to finish at four under and one behind the lead of Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger.

Swede Alex Noren made a solid start in defence of his title with an opening three-under-par 69, which is also where South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel ended the day following his bogey on 18.

But with no South African winner of this tournament since 2007, it is Grace who has given local fans a sense of hope that this year the crystal trophy will remain here.

Although Grace himself wasn’t so sure after his start to the round.

“It’s a brutal golf course, and I didn’t do anything wrong in those first few holes. The putter was just cold,” said Grace. “But I kept hitting the ball great and giving myself chances.”

Frenchman Victor Dubuisson set the early pace and at one stage there were as many as seven players tied for the lead with him on four under. Wiesberger was one of those after 16 holes of his round, and then he birdied the 18th to edge ahead.

But Grace was more than pleased with his start on a golf course which he says suits him, and which was playing typically tough on Thursday.

“I think it’s a grinder’s golf course. It’s one of those where you have to be aggressive when you can, and when you don’t have to, you don’t have to. I like this course. This is the type of grass that I grew up playing, kikuyu, and I just have fond memories of it. I’ve had a lot of wins on grass like this and courses like this. It feels nice to be able to finish the day off with a good round and I’m looking forward to the next couple days.”

Grace finished third in this tournament last year along with Dubuisson, who shares the South African’s love for this course.

“I think it suits my long game very well. I also feel very comfortable on the greens. The thing here is you really have to keep the ball on the fairway. If the driver starts to go wrong, you can make some really high scores.”