Els appeared to have chipped in for an eagle on the par-five 12th at Wentworth, but instantly realised he had not replaced his ball in the right place after checking to see if it was plugged.
The four-time major winner was therefore assessed a two-shot penalty (under Rule 20-7) and eventually signed for a one-under-par 71 to lie five shots off the pace set by Sweden’s Johan Carlsson.
“I pulled my second shot a bit left and hit it into the bank of the bunker,” Els explained. “I thought it was plugged, so I asked my guys (playing partners) if I could check it and they said, ‘Yeah’.
“I put it back and I hit my chip shot and I just felt uncomfortable by the way the ball came out. The ball came out way too good so I felt I didn’t quite probably put it exactly where I should have.
“Under the rules you try and put it back the way you think it should be, but I still felt uncomfortable with it, so we took a two-shot penalty. I know deep down the ball wasn’t quite where it should be and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
Els at least had reason to celebrate the verdict on his latest redesign of the West Course, which has met with universal approval from his fellow competitors.
“The greens are absolutely as pure as you can find,” said the 47-year-old, who was visibly upset by criticism of his original redesign in 2010. “Next week we’ll be playing the Memorial (at Muirfield Village) and I think these greens are running just as good or better than the Memorial, or Augusta for that matter.
“We listened to some of the players’ comments through the years since we started first changing and I think I feel we’ve got it right this time.”
The £5million renovation programme started just eight days after last year’s event, with all 18 greens stripped of their old turf and reseeded with a new type of grass.
Four greens were completely reconstructed and another five partially rebuilt, with 29 bunkers removed and a sub-air system as used at Augusta National was installed.
“We had the best of the conditions, not a breath of air, and the greens are so good this year,” said Scotland’s Scott Jamieson, who was in the first group out at 7am and carded a flawless 67. “To be the first people on all 18 greens, they are just a great surface to putt on.”
Jamieson’s score was matched by Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Francesco Molinari, with Open champion Henrik Stenson and Ryder Cup star Thomas Pieters part of a nine-strong group on four under. Shane Lowry was also part of that group, with an excellent round that featured six birdies.
Pieters, who bogeyed the last after finding the water with his approach, was making his first start since finishing in a tie for fourth at the Masters, having opted to miss the Players Championship in favour of a family holiday.
“There’s been some criticism on social media but that’s my decision and if you’re not happy with it that’s your problem,” said the Belgian, who won a record four points on his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine last year.
Asked if it would mean more to win this week than at Sawgrass, the 25-year-old added: “Yes, because it’s my Tour and all the history of Seve (Ballesteros) and all those guys winning this trophy.
“After all the majors it’s the one I want to win.”
Stenson birdied four of his last eight holes after starting with 11 straight pars on just his second appearance in the event in the last seven years, while Lee Westwood carded a 70 on his 24th consecutive appearance.
Danny Willett, Justin Rose and defending champion Chris Wood all finished on level par, with Wood throwing his ball into the water on the 18th after a bogey six.
Meanwhile South Africa’s Branden Grace insisted his conscience was clear after receiving a controversial drop.
After making an eagle on the 12th to move into a tie for the lead at Wentworth, Grace’s approach to the 13th plugged in the bank of a bunker, leaving him with an awkward lie on the upslope.
However, after taking his stance in the sand, the 29-year-old called in a rules official and said that his feet were touching the rubber sheeting at the base of the bunker, thereby entitling him to a free drop.
The decision was met with criticism on social media, with former Masters champion Danny Willett writing on Twitter: “@EuropeanTour please explain that drop?! Burying feet enough in to get to the base of the bunker???”