Starting from the 10th after a delay of two and a half hours because of Wednesday's torrential rain, Els dropped two shots in an outward half of 37 before picking up his first birdie of the day on the par-five second. The 35-year-old also birdied the fourth and fifth to get into red figures for the first time, but two more bogeys left him seven shots off the pace.
Fellow South African Trevor Immelman, the Australian Peter Lonard and England's Steve Webster shared the lead on six under par, one ahead of Colombia's rising star Camilo Villegas.
Among the later starters, Colin Montgomerie was three under par after five, while his playing partner Greg Norman, wearing a microphone to broadcast his thoughts to the television audience, was level par.
Nick Faldo, playing alongside Immelman, hit a 78 to lie third last on seven over, and said: "I was so rusty I should be sponsored by WD-40!"Reuse content