By Michael Todt
DURBAN (Reuters) - Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee wielded a hot putter as he fired a seven-under-par 65 in blustery conditions to seize a three-stroke lead after the first round of the Volvo Golf Champions on Thursday.
British Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa and compatriot Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner, carded 68s to lie joint second while Briton Paul Lawrie was among seven players on three-under.
Former paratrooper Thongchai, ranked 80 and who qualified courtesy of his Wales Open triumph last June, made light of the strong winds and posted five birdies in his outward nine holes for a score of 31.
Further birdies at the 10th and 15th holes followed and he cancelled out his only bogey of the day at the 17th with a fine up-and-down from the sand at the 18th for birdie.
"I made long putts from everywhere. I had 24 or 25 putts today, and I haven't putted this well in a long time," Thongchai told a news conference.
"It's very, very exciting to come here because I've never been to South Africa before. I'm very happy to finish seven-under in the first round of 2013," he added.
Gusting winds and steady rain affected play for much of the afternoon, but the 43-year-old remained unaffected and called on the experience he gained from his victory in similar conditions in Wales last year.
"We have no choice. Everyone has to play in this, and I enjoy it," said the five-times European Tour winner.
"We play most of the time in Europe in conditions like this. Like Scotland, there is a lot of wind, and this is a links course - it's almost the same. I won in the same wind like this in Wales, and it was also raining in that one."
Els, who won the 2011 South African Open at the same course, was pleased with his seven-birdie effort given the conditions.
"It was tough. It was the first round of the year, and we had to work really hard today. It was blustery right from the first hole, but then the rain came really hard for our whole back nine," said the four-times major champion.
"So just to keep the ball in play, and to keep it down - it was a totally different golf course from what I remember yesterday," added the 43-year-old.
(Editing by Tom Pilcher)