Kendall, who accidentally slashed a sizable chunk out of his left index finger last year, shot a 9-under 63 Wednesday to share the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic lead.
Australian Mark Hensby also had an opening 63 in the five-day, 90-hole tournament.
Kenny Perry, the 1995 Hope champion, was a shot off the lead with a 64. Jay Haas, 1988 champion and runner-up to Mike Weir last year, was tied at 65 with Justin Leonard and Jerry Kelly.
Phil Mickelson, the champion two years ago, shot a 68 in his season debut. Weir had a 70.
The 39-year-old Kendall, winless in 293 career starts, is able to hold clubs normally again after having to switch to a reverse overlap grip while his gashed finger healed.
He cut it slicing a bagel 'with a very sharp knife' last May, missed a month on the tour and had to alter his grip until late in the year.
'I couldn't put any pressure on it,' he said. 'It's completely healed, and I'm back to my regular grip, as I was at the end of last year. It wasn't too bad. If I had cut it completely off, which could easily have happened, then I would have been real worried.
'It cut almost all the way to the bone. I just picked it up and they sewed it back.'
He grinned and added, 'I got a bunch of bagel slicers out of it.'
Kendall's short game was clicking for the first round of the Hope. He sank several long putts, including 25-footers for birdies on the fourth and fifth holes.
He went to 5 under with an eagle on the 562-yard, par-5 No. 6 at PGA West. His a 3-wood rolled onto the some 30 feet below the hole, then he made the long putt.
Four courses are used for the Hope, with the first four days a pro-am and the field trimmed to the 70 low-scoring pros - and ties - for Sunday's final round.
Kendall played the Palmer Course at PGA West, where the last round also will be held. Hensby and Perry both played the first round at Indian Wells Country Club.
Kendall, who played his first tour event in 1987, finished 70th on the money list last year with $1.2 million despite the finger problem. He had just two top-10 finishes, a tie for fourth in the Buick Classic and a tie for eighth in the Ford Championship at Doral.
He's finished second three times in his career, losing twice in playoffs.
'I'm not going to get hung up on winning,' said Kendall, who missed the cut in the Sony Open last week. 'I feel like I have enough game to win. I think it's going to happen in due time.'
Hensby, a 32-year-old from Melbourne, is playing in his 35th tour event. His highest finish was a tie for ninth in the 2001 Tucson Open, and he tied for 31st last week in Hawaii.
Leonard enjoyed his first round of the Hope in more ways than one.
'I played with Michael Chang and Michael Bolton,' he said. 'I got to pick Michael Chang's brain all day about tennis. I probably wore the guy out.'
DIVOTS:@ The Hope winner has finished 30 under or lower each of the past three years, but just five times since the tournament began in 1960. Weir was 30 under last year. Joe Durant set the PGA Tour's 90-hole record in 2001 with a 36-under 324 total. ... Johnny Miller is the only player to win the Hope in consecutive years, taking the titles in 1975 and 1976. Arnold Palmer won five times, including the first tournament in 1960. His last Hope victory was in 1973.
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