With a tricky, shifting breeze blowing around the Pilanesberg valleys and brutal semi-rough waiting to punish anything slightly off line, Haas showed he had the stomach for the fight.
The 30-year-old son of distinguished American golfer Jay Haas, who is also at Sun City playing in the Champions Challenge for the seniors, Bill Haas had two loops of 35 for a two-under-par 70 that left him level with Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts at the top of the leaderboard.
Colsaerts, an extraordinarily long hitter who reined himself in on Thursday, had the most consistent round of the day with just one bogey, and he closed the gap on Haas with birdies on the 10th and 11th holes.
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, Scotsman Paul Lawrie and England’s Lee Westwood are on their coat-tails on one-under-par, while Francesco Molinari, Martin Kaymer, Peter Hanson, Charl Schwartzel and Carl Pettersson are all on par.
With the intense heat only adding to the discomfort, it was a day for intestinal fortitude rather than flashy golf.
And Haas had approached the last three holes well-pleased with himself as he sat on four-under-par, leading by two.
“I’d done well to get to four under, there was a bit of breeze out there, the wind showed its teeth today after being pretty docile before. It’s a good, tough course, and you had to drive it in the fairway because the rough just seems so much more penal here. Other than the finish, I took a lot out of my round,” Haas said.
And part of the Gary Player Country Club’s brutality was that the moment a golfer relaxed and thought he was cruising, the course bit back. With a vengeance.
“The 15th is one of the tougher driving holes, but I hit driver and a wedge to six feet for birdie, so maybe I was too confident and I pulled my drive on 16,” Haas said.
That led to his first bogey since the third hole and then, on the 18th, his tee shot found the left rough. His second then found more rough just short of the greenside bunker. Haas was unable to chip on to the green at the first attempt and his second chip rolled 10 feet past the hole.
“I was very happy to make that putt for bogey! But if I’d hit it into the bunker in the first place, I’d probably have made four,” Haas complained.
Justin Rose, the highest-ranked golfer in the field, was another who paid the price for getting ahead of himself as he ended the first day second-from-bottom after a 73.
Having surged up the leaderboard with successive birdies on the par-fives around the turn, he then bogeyed the 11th, 12th and 13th holes. His troubles started on the dogleg par-four 11th when he tried to take the “Tiger-line” over the trees on the left, came up short and landed behind a tree. His second rebounded off the tree, going 40 metres backwards, and his fall from grace had begun.
Colsaerts turned 30 two weeks ago but has had the life experience to make him a font of wisdom. An immensely talented golfer who won his European Tour card when he was just 18, the party scene derailed his career for a few years before he began to fulfil his promise.
“I feel like I’ve led a few different lives,” he is quoted as saying by the official tournament brochure.
A top-20 finish in the Race to Dubai in 2011 was followed by victory in the World Matchplay Championship and a place in Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Colsaerts playing a key role in their triumph.
Being able to quite literally “drive for show” also carries its temptations, but Colsaerts showed admirable maturity on Thursday.
“I didn’t use a very aggressive game plan, even with the driver when I used it. I think I played like everyone else, hitting the same spots, because you were better off hitting an iron from the fairway than a lob-wedge out of the kikuyu rough. I probably played close to my best in terms of management off the tee,” Colsaerts said.
Oosthuizen, sporting a Movember moustache that would surely be the pride of Bloemfontein, was the most impressive of the South Africans with a perfect back nine that included birdies on the 10th and 18th holes.
It could have been a totally different story for South Africa’s highest ranked golfer as he followed up a birdie on the par-five second hole with three bogeys, before settling himself with a brilliant birdie on the par-four eighth.
Ten golfers finishing within two shots of the lead told the story of a day when no one was able to conquer a course that takes sadistic delight in exposing and magnifying the smallest of errors.
Which is perfect for what is billed as “Africa’s Major” – what is still, for the time being, the most lucrative tournament on the toughest continent in the world.