Els carded six birdies and one bogey at Glendower Golf Club in his native Johannesburg to finish five under par, one shot behind compatriot Jbe Kruger and England’s Andy Sullivan.
The 45-year-old started on the back nine and recovered from a bogey on the 12th with birdies at the 13th, 14th and 16th to be out in 34, before picking up further shots on the second and fifth.
Els missed a good birdie chance on the 7th from 15 feet, but finished his round in style with a superb iron shot to two feet on the 9th for a closing birdie.
“That was nice,” said Els, who failed to register a top-three finish on the European Tour last season for the first time since 1992. “I was a little nervous here and there but it was so nice to play Glendower in front of my home crowd.”
Els has reverted to a normal putter ahead of the ban on anchored strokes which comes into effect in 2016, and admitted short putts were “still a little bit nerve-wracking”.
However, the home favourite and four-time major winner was delighted with his iron shots on a course featuring thick rough.
“I have been working on that a little bit, taking a little distance off and trying not to hit them too hard,” he added. “Coming off the fairway they were coming out nice and crisp so I enjoyed my iron shots today.”
Sullivan recovered from a double bogey on the fifth with birdies on the eighth and ninth and then carded three more in succession from the 12th before chipping in for an eagle on the par-five 15th.
The 27-year-old from Nuneaton, who won a trip into space for a hole-in-one in the KLM Open last year, said: “This course is set up difficult with the rough and there were a few tricky pins out there so I am really happy with six under. I just got on a bit of a roll.
“I got lucky a couple of times today in the rough, found a few good spots to say the least and took advantage of it, so it’s been good.
“It’s not a position that I have been too familiar with the first day, it’s normally the back end of a tournament where I get going but it’s nice to be in that position and hopefully I can kick on like I normally do, the luck continues and I find myself in that position on Sunday.”
Kruger, who finished runner-up to Denmark’s Morten Orum Madsen last year, carded six birdies in a flawless 66 while Els was joined on five under by compatriot Richard Sterne and Dane Lasse Jensen.
Ireland’s Peter Lawrie is tied 28th on one under par after firing a 71 yesterday. His compatriot Gareth Maybin hit the same score.
Spanish rookie Jordi Garcia Pinto had enjoyed a four-shot lead when he reached seven under par after 15 holes before bogeys at the last three holes meant the Challenge Tour graduate had to settle for a four-under-par 68, which was later matched by Scotland’s David Drysdale and South African pair Charl Schwartzel and Colin Nel.