AFTER two years without a single top-10 finish on the European Tour, a newly slim Darren Clarke reaped the benefits of an intense fitness regime on the opening day of the Volvo Golf Champions yesterday.
Clarke carded a three-under-par 69 in testing conditions at Durban Country Club to lie two shots behind leader Raphael Jacquelin, the Frenchman managing the only bogey-free round of the day.
Jacquelin defied strong crosswinds blowing in from the Indian Ocean to post a flawless 67, one shot ahead of defending champion Louis Oosthuizen, with three of his five birdies coming in the last five holes.
Playing partner Colin Montgomerie, who usually plays on the Seniors Tour since turning 50 last year, finished two under, while Clarke carded five birdies and two bogeys in his 69.
The former Open champion has lost almost three stone since October as he looks to reproduce the golf which brought him a first major title at Royal St George's in 2011.
"My objectives are getting back to playing some of the golf I know I can play," the Northern Irishman said. "I have had a frustrating last couple of years where I have not played that badly, but made stupid mistakes.
"I took a look at myself in October and thought I was getting too fat, too heavy, too lethargic and decided to do something about it. I spend a lot of time in the gym doing heavy weights, no cardio, and changed my diet and hopefully I will reap the benefits.
"I plan to keep doing what I am doing, if not necessarily losing any more weight, maybe get stronger and stronger. I hit a drive on the 10th today of 300 yards back into the wind and another driver from 285 yards to 12 feet. I couldn't have done that maybe five or six months ago."
Clarke, now ranked 297th in the world, revealed he has largely eliminated sugar and carbohydrates from his diet, but added: "I have not gone totally over to the dark side. I am more careful about what I do, but I was still able to have a few pints with my mates over Christmas."
Montgomerie was inches away from winning a Volvo Backhoe Loader (excavator) worth $75,000 for a hole in one on the par-three 15th, although he admitted he would have swiftly asked the tournament sponsors for the cash instead and split it with caddie Alistair McLean.
The former Ryder Cup captain added: "It's very difficult and tricky out there. The wind was coming off the sea and made every hole a crosswind. You have to be very careful, you can make a mess out there in a hurry."
That was borne out by the likes of Ryder Cup hopefuls Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez struggling to scores of 79 and 76 respectively, but Jacquelin relished battling the elements.
"I'm better when the conditions are difficult," said Jacquelin.
Oosthuizen was plagued by an ongoing back injury last season, but also relished the windy conditions as he recovered from a bogey on the first with five birdies.
"I grew up in Mossel Bay and I think the wind is born there," he said.