But a debilitating back problem then struck and he could play just 10 events in 2010 and 2011, eventually opting for surgery. The 31-year-old eventually returned to full-time play on the European Tour in the second half of 2012 and showed he was back to his best last weekend when he finished second in the Dubai Desert Classic.
Sterne continued in that vein of form on Thursday in the first round of the Joburg Open as he shot an eight-under-par 63 on the par-71 West Course to claim a share of the lead with German Maximilian Kieffer.
“On the West Course you’ve got to put a good score together and I did that today. Some days it feels good and everything just kind of happens. Golf is strange – you’ve got to hit the right kind of shots at the right time. I’ve been minimising the mistakes and I hit 17 greens [in regulation] today, so I was never really in any trouble at all,” Sterne said.
Durban’s Bryce Easton nearly joined the leaders despite playing the tougher East Course as he fired a brilliant seven-under-par 65 on the par-72 layout.
Eight golfers were tied for fourth on six-under-par, with South Africans Jake Redman, Trevor Fisher Jnr, Allan Versfeld and Tyrone Ferreira the happiest of that bunch as they played the East Course.
Charl Schwartzel, the 2010 and 2011 champion, will also feel that he has more birdies stored up for later as he shot a solid 68 on the East Course, collecting five birdies, three on the front nine and two on the back, and just dropping a single shot, on the par-four ninth.
George Coetzee bogeyed the fourth and fifth holes on the West Course, but also picked up six birdies on the West Course and joined Schwartzel in the tie for 25th.
Defending champion Branden Grace had an off-day with the putter and struggled to a par-72 on the East Course. He followed six straight pars with a bogey on the seventh and later double-bogeyed the lengthy par-four 11th, offsetting the benefits of three birdies.
Later in the day, Norway’s Espen Kofstad and Englishman Ross McGowan made strong pushes for the lead, but both finished the first round on five-under-par, trailing Sterne and Kieffer by three.
Kofstad, the 2012 Challenge Tour order of merit winner, saw his round wrecked on the 18th hole of the West Course, where he erred off the tee and then compounded the problem by putting poorly to end his round with a triple-bogey seven.
McGowan ran aground on the 16th and 17th holes of the East Course, bogeying both of them.
But Easton’s round, notwithstanding the precision golf played by Sterne, was the best of the day, highlighted by a hole-in-one on the 167-metre par-three 12th hole.
“I missed a few fairways so I still need to figure out the driver a bit, I have some work to do this afternoon. But it’s nice to have a round where you don’t hit the ball so well but you still score well.
“Golf’s a funny game, sometimes you hit the ball flush and you don’t score so well,” Easton said.
Re that ace: Easton hit a seven-iron and admitted the first hole-in-one of his career took some time to digest.
“It’s my first hole-in-one and you obviously don’t think about it when you’re playing the hole. But then the ball goes in and it takes you a couple of seconds to realise it’s disappeared. It was an awesome feeling,” he said.
Easton’s reward was a million bonus points from the Hilton Hotel, sponsored by Investec, which translates to about R100,000 worth of free accommodation.
American Peter Uihlein, lauded as the world’s number one amateur in 2010 but with just over €10,000 in prize money as a professional, is also right in the thick of things on six-under.
“I am happy. It’s always good to play the first round well and get off to a good start on the West Course in particular, because I’ve been told the low scores come out on that course,” Uihlein said. “I understand that you have to be very patient in this game and not try to force it or get discouraged if you don’t make it right away. I’m 23, I’m still pretty young and I’m enjoying it so far.”
Fisher tore through the first six holes of the East Course in four-under, despite battling nerves, but then dropped shots at the par-four seventh and the malicious par-four 10th to sandwich a birdie at eight.
Although Fisher won the Sunshine Tour’s Players’ Player of the Year award this week, he said he still felt like the knives were out for him due to the pressure of expectation now on him.
One man who is probably playing with little expectation is Kieffer, who finished 14th in last year’s second tier Challenge Tour and is a rookie on the European Tour.
“The West Course is a bit easier from the tee and there are a couple more birdie opportunities. My secret today was my putting and I was very good on the front nine and just missed one putt on 18.
“But it’s a new world for me, I am still trying to prove myself and I don’t really know what to expect,” Kieffer said.
That probably applies to the tournament as a whole, with a clearer picture of the contenders expected to emerge on Friday when the golfers swop courses and the cut is made.