Just about everyone else was complaining about the thick, tangled grass off the fairways however, and Kruger produced the only bogey-free round of the day, his precise iron play being the key, particularly on a back nine that he studded with four birdies.
“I hit my irons very well today, considering that I only hit a couple of fairways. But the greens are very good and if you hit it straight, then there are a lot of birdies out there,” Kruger said.
Els alternated between driver and three-wood off the tee and it came off as he produced an impressive round that featured just one bogey, on the par-four 12th.
“I was much better off the tee than I’ve been recently and I managed to hit quite a few fairways. I hit a few three-woods and when I used driver it came off as well. On quite a few holes, if you miss the fairway you’re finished, but I was more aggressive today, I was swinging freely and not steering the ball.
“But the organisers are getting soft, they had complaints and they cut the rough down this morning. You now can get decent lies in the rough and I hope they leave it to grow now again,” Els said.
Sullivan really put the wind up Kruger and Els as he charged to six-under with five birdies in seven holes from the eighth, capped by an eagle at the par-five 15th. But the Englishman could only come home with three pars to ensure he and Kruger share first place, with Els a daunting figure just below them.
Driver was Sullivan’s instrument of choice and it set him up for six birdies overall. Even his double-bogey on the par-four fifth came from the middle of the fairway.
“I played really good golf, I took on the course, used driver as much as you can and it paid off. Generally I do drive the ball well, it’s a strength of mine, and I was swinging well and made the most of it,” Sullivan said.
Former champion Richard Sterne was tied for third with Els and Denmark’s Lasse Jensen on five-under, while Charl Schwartzel shot an encouraging four-under-par 68.
Thomas Aiken shot an up-and-down 70, as did George Coetzee, while Branden Grace was four-under-par through 12 holes before a single visit to the reeds at the par-three sixth derailed his round and he finished with a 71.
Spanish rookie Jordi Garcia Pinto and South African Erik van Rooyen will both be kicking themselves as they faltered on the closing holes to take the gloss off very good rounds.
Pinto bogeyed the last three holes but still managed to post a 68, while Van Rooyen dropped shots on 17 and 18 to slip back to three-under-par.
The affable Kruger, who finished second in the SA Open last year at Glendower was clearly delighted with his round, but was quick to express his happiness at Els’s successful return to the national Open.
“It was the perfect start after two weeks off, you couldn’t ask for a better way to get your confidence back. The rough was hectic and if you miss the fairway, you have to get lucky like I did on 18.
“It’s great for South African golf that Ernie is in contention, it’s because it’s Ernie Els and you simply have to respect him. But I’m one ahead of him, which is very nice!” Kruger said with an impish smile.