The 29-year-old South African had not played a tournament since the Masters in April before arriving at St Leon-Rot to battle for the pounds 200,000 first prize against five other members of the world's top 10.
But an opening 66, six under par with no dropped shots, proved that the double US Open champion's game was in good shape for the rest of the season.
"I played well above my expectations," said Els, who had four birdies in his first six holes. "It was almost flawless golf for the first seven holes. I told myself at the start of the year if I didn't feel like playing then I wouldn't and that's what I've been doing.
"I had played seven tournaments in a row before the Masters and my final round 80 was a contributing factor to me taking a five-week break from golf. I didn't know which end of the club to hold when I got here!"
Els' score gave him a two-shot lead over the rest of the field with France's Jean Van De Velde having to settle for a four-under-par 68 after a double- bogey six on his last hole cost him a share of the lead.
Tiger Woods declared himself happy with his 69 on his debut in a European tournament outside Britain, adding: "I knew that anything under par was going to be good. Under the conditions it's very difficult and I'm pleased to shoot under par. The toughest part is that we didn't leave the course until 9pm last night and we had to go back and get something to eat and somehow sleep. It was a quick turnaround and not easy to do."
Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie both fired opening 71s, one under par, while Lee Westwood battled to a 72 despite still feeling pain from the arm injury that has forced him to miss the last two events.
Gary Orr was the surprise package as he made light of a gusty wind to share the lead with Els. The Surrey-based Scot, whose best result on tour was a tie for second behind Colin Montgomerie in the Volvo PGA Championship last year, had four birdies in his opening six holes to reach the turn in 32.
He finished in style with a superb iron approach to within six feet of the flag on the ninth green to collect his sixth birdie of the day and join Els in a tie for the lead.
DEUTSCHE BANK OPEN (Heidelberg) Early first round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 66 E Els (SA), G Orr; 68 J Van De Velde (Fr); 69 M Anglert (Swe), B Davis, A Cejka (Ger), T Woods (US), P Baker, M Farry (Fr), P Sjoland (Swe); 70 F Lindgren (Swe), J Robinson, B May (US), P McGinley, S Richardson, D Gilford, D Clarke (N Irl), J Sandelin (Swe), T Gogele (Ger); 71 J Berendt (Arg), M Scarpa (It), C Whitelaw (SA), N Faldo, N Price (Zim), M O'Meara (US), C Montgomerie, B Langer (Ger), M Jonzon (Swe), D Cooper, J Parnevik (Swe), S Leaney (Aus), G Norquist (US); 72 A Sherborne, R Davis (Aus), F Cea (Sp), P Price, L Westwood, E Romero (Arg), R Winchester, P Nyman (Swe), R Karlsson (Swe), S Webster, P Senior (Aus), A Oldcorn, W Bennett, D Howell; Selected others: 73 P Harrington (Irl), I Woosnam, 74 C Rocca (It),78 P-U Johansson (Swe); 80 T Bjorn (Den).Reuse content