Former paratrooper Thongchai Jaidee jumped into a three-stroke lead over Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen when the Volvo Champions began at a wet and windy Durban Country Club today.
Seven players share fourth place. Scottish trio Paul Lawrie, Richie Ramsay and Scott Jamieson all shot 69, as did Welshman Jamie Donaldson, England's Danny Willett, Dane Thomas Bjorn and Indian Jeev Milkha Singh.
Lawrie got the better of playing partner Colin Montgomerie by three after an unusual start to their round.
There was a 10-minute hold-up on the opening green because the flagstick was stuck in the hole and damage was caused in yanking it out.
Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry head the Irish challenge on two under, with Michael Lowry a shot behind the duo, while Darren Clarke carded a forgettable 75.
Hoey would have shared second spot with three closing pars, but instead double-bogeyed the 16th and 18th as his round faltered late on.
Hoey reckoned he had drunk too much water. "I felt bloated and lost so much concentration," he said.
The former British amateur champion will need his focus back for the second round. Amateurs from the final of the Volvo World Challenge join the action for one day only.
While Jaidee's seven-under-par 65 was hugely impressive, it was one particular shot from Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts that had the players talking.
Els could not believe his eyes when Europe's biggest hitter launched a drive of 419 yards at the downwind third hole.
"I've been coming here since 1986 I think and I've never seen a ball there, nobody has," Els said.
"They should put a plaque down. I was coming from a different zip code. And I've got to compete against these animals!"
Els had the last laugh, though. He matched his playing partner's birdie and out-scored him by five to keep his victory hopes firmly alive.
Jaidee, part of the 33-strong winners-only field thanks to his victory at the Wales Open last June, was out on his own from the time he birdied six of the first 10 holes.
The 43-year-old led by five at one point, but that was cut to three late in the day despite the two South African stars having to contend with heavy rain.
"We probably got the bad side of the draw, but that's part of golf," said Oosthuizen, who faced similar conditions during his runaway seven-shot win in the 2010 Open at St Andrews.
He and Els still had the advantage of local knowledge, however. Jaidee is on his first-ever trip to South Africa.