South African Grace posted a 10-under-par 62 at Leopard Creek Country Club, which gave him a three-shot lead over countryman Jake Roos, with Willett and Ford a further shot back. Grace, who won four European tour events in 2012, was in sparkling form at the Kruger National Park venue.
“I hit the ball superbly from the start to the finish,” said Grace.
“I can’t remember the last time I hit 18 greens in a row, which is pretty nice, especially around this place where there are some daunting approaches.”
Ford had been set to take up a job as a postman during the winter, but successfully came through last month’s European Tour qualifying school and showed his talent through a round of 66 that contained eight birdies and just two bogeys.
Yorkshire pair Matt Fitzpatrick and John Parry both scored one-under rounds of 71, while Hull’s Richard Finch left himself with a lot of work to do after ending the opening day five over on 77.
American Boo Weekley set the early pace at the Australian PGA Championship before stormy weather caused day one at Royal Pines to be curtailed.
The 41-year-old from Florida had five birdies, an eagle and just one dropped shot in an opening round of 66 and a two-shot lead.