One was scared to hit a full shot two weeks ago at the Australian Open, the other was forced back to Q-school 12 months ago, yet Lucas Herbert and Brett Rankin are the unlikely first-round leaders at the Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines Resort.

Greeted by idyllic conditions, the morning groups fared best on day one but it was a struggle for two-time defending champion Cameron Smith, who fought back to end his opening round at two-over.

Conversely, a chip-in birdie at the 11th hole – his second of the day – and an eagle at the par-5 12th saw Herbert race to four-under through three holes to set a cracking early pace.

He stumbled with bogeys at the 13th, 14th and 18th holes to turn in one-under, but got one back at the first and birdied three of his final four holes to end the day at five-under and level with Rankin to share the lead on day one.

Battling a ligament injury in his right hand, Herbert played hesitantly as he missed the cut at the Australian Open a fortnight ago, but was troubled on only a couple of occasions in his round of 67 today.

“It’s probably seven weeks today since I did it, so it’s kind of at the point now with a ligament injury that it should start calming down and not hurting as much,” Herbert said.

“I can still just feel it a little bit at times. There was one shot into the eighth today that I felt it a bit and it was bit sore.

“At the Open I was kind of flinching and trying to not hurt my hand whereas I’m not really doing that now. Whether it’s a wedge that you’ve got to take a pretty steep divot with, I’m actually OK with doing that, whereas I wasn’t two weeks ago.

“Hand’s really good, can’t complain there. It’s good to be healthy again and able to play.”

Where Herbert struggled through his second year on the European Tour, Rankin is enjoying a career resurgence in 2019 courtesy of seven pro-am wins throughout Australia and overseas and a breakthrough win at the Northern Territory PGA Championship.

Wins at such diverse places as Lae in Papua New Guinea, Reynella in South Australia, Dysart in North Queensland, Coolangatta and Casino saw Rankin finish second on the Ladbrokes Pro-Am Series, form he has carried into one of Australia’s major tournaments.

“I’m really happy with the year,” Rankin said. “It’s been a year of firsts and I’m definitely happy with where the game is at the moment.

“Winning the NT PGA gives you that confidence you know you can do it, that your best golf can win on this tour.

“It’s a tough tour, there’s so many good players out here. You gain that confidence from winning multiple pro-ams and you take that to the next level. You win a tour event, and the next you’re like, OK, I belong here. You gain confidence just from doing that.”

Five players are in a share of third one shot adrift of Herbert and Rankin with a quartet of Kiwis – Ryan Fox, Nick Voke, David Smail and Harry Bateman – in a group of seven players to return a score of three-under 69 on Thursday.

In the group of 17 players at two-under par are 2013 champion Adam Scott and 2009 Open champion Stewart Cink, Scott making up for a double-bogey at the 13th hole with an eagle at 15 while Cink gave up shots at each of his final two holes to sign for a 70.

Scott, Cink and Min Woo Lee (68) will be the first group off the 10th tee at 6am on Friday with Jason Norris (69), Rhein Gibson (71) and Dimi Papadatos (72) to begin proceedings from the first.

The group of Smith, Fox and American drawcard Cameron Champ (71) will begin their second rounds from the first tee at 11am, AEST.