Darren Clarke cuts out the carbs and stays in touch with Jacquelin

• Clarke shoots three-under 69, Montgomerie has a 70
• France's Jacquelin has bogey-free round of 67

After two years without a 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 at the Durban Country Club on Thursday .

The 2011 Open champion has lost almost three stone since October as he looks to rediscover the game which brought him a first major at Royal St George's. "My objectives are getting back to playing some of the golf I know I can play," the 45-year-old 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."

The Northern Irishman, ranked No297 in the world, said 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."

Clarke returned a three-under 69 with five birdies and two bogeys in testing, windy conditions to finish two shots behind Raphael Jacquelin, the Frenchman managing the only bogey-free round of the day. Colin Montgomerie, who usually plays on the Seniors Tour, played with Clarke and finished on two under.

The Scot was inches from winning a Volvo excavator truck worth $75,000 for a hole in one at the 15th, although he said he would have asked the sponsor for the cash and split it with his caddie Alistair McLean. "I was playing well at the end of last year and I started to play a lot more golf," Montgomerie said. "I had not been having much fun on 7,500-yard courses on the main tour but I am a member of three tours now [the European and two seniors] and it's given me more freedom to choose courses I can get round.

"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."

The Ryder Cup hopefuls Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jiménez struggled to scores of 79 and 76 respectively but Jacquelin relished battling the elements. "I'm better when the conditions are difficult," said the Frenchman, who won the Spanish Open last year after a record-equalling nine-hole play-off. "I score better when it's difficult with the wind or rain or if the course is difficult, like playing majors like the US Open. I like it when it's tough. Stay focused all day long and I know if you save par you are always going to be around [the lead]. That's the way I like to play.

"It's a tricky course but if you stay focused it's wide off the tee. We always have 40 metres to put the ball in play, which is pretty good for us, but it's just the vision of all the trees and the bushes around the course that make it difficult. But if you just trust yourself and don't try to guide the ball it's not too bad."

Louis Oosthuizen was plagued by a back injury last season but he also relished the windy conditions as he recovered from a bogey at the 1st with five birdies.

"I grew up in Mossel Bay and I think the wind is born there and just goes to the rest of the country," the 2010 Open champion joked. "I am really chuffed with my score and would have been happy to be one under or level. In the wind I don't try to hit it too hard and take one more club and at the moment that's the type of golf that I like with my back problems." © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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