Els, playing at Torrey Pines for the first time since he was 14, was in a large group at 8-under 136.
Exhibiting a putting touch reminiscent of his prime, Tom Watson shot a bogey-free, 8-under-par 64 to take a two-stroke lead over Wayne Levi after the first round of the MasterCard Championship.
"You shoot low scores when you putt well," Watson said after exhibiting a putting touch reminiscent of his prime and firing eight birdies.
He didn't have a 5 on his scorecard at Hualalai Golf Club in shooting his lowest round since a 66 last year in the season-opening event on the Champions Tour.
Levi also had a bogey-free opening round. He made consecutive birdies at Nos. 4-5, and finished with three birdies on each nine.
"It feels like I'm flipping at the ball, but it's going straight," said Watson, a winner of eight major titles who was winless last year as he battled hip and shoulder injuries and weathered the emotional loss of his longtime caddie Bruce Edwards, who died in April of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Vicente Fernandez, who took two months off to allow a torn tendon in his left ring finger to heal, chipped in twice for birdie to lead a large group at 5-under 67. Fernandez also avoided making a bogey. Also at 67 were 2004 player of the year Craig Stadler, Dana Quigley, Morris Hatalsky and John Jacobs.
Quigley, the 2003 champion and runner-up last year, shot his ninth straight rounds in the 60s at Hualalai.
Six players, including defending champion Fuzzy Zoeller, were in with 68.
South African golfer Titch Moore shot a 2-under 70 on Friday for a two-stoke lead after the second round of the South African Open.
Moore, who opened with a 65, led fellow South Africans Hendrik Buhrmann and Tjaart van de Walt with four other players three shots behind at the Durban Country Club.
"I'm having a problem off the tee, Moore said. ``The first fairway I hit today was on the seventh hole, and that is something I will have to work on immediately because if you're not finding the fairways, you're not going to score on this course."
Moore also struggled to reach the greens, hitting only one green in regulation on the first five holes. But he birdied 13, 14, 16 and 18 to keep himself atop the leaderboard.
Bruce Vaughan of the US, co-leader after the first round, found things tougher on day two, shooting a 73 to fall three behind.