Reigning British Open champion Ben Curtis, 50-year-old Jay Haas, Heath Slocum, Jonathan Byrd and Rod Pampling share second place after opening rounds of 3-under-par 68.
Wind and the overall difficulty of the course made scores very high on Thursday. Twenty-seven players broke par in the first round but no golfer made a significant move past the field.
'I'm really confused a lot of scores aren't better,' said Beckman, a 34-year-old from Minneapolis. 'It's a different wind than we usually have. I played here enough now to kind of know the golf course and things like that. I definitely learned some lessons that day.'
Beckman opened on the back nine at Harbour Town Golf Links and tallied three birdies in his first six holes, including a 40-footer at No. 13. He hit into a hazard on the left side and dropped a shot at the par-4 18th to make the turn at minus-2.
Beckman, whose only PGA Tour victory was the 2001 Southern Farm Bureau Classic, birdied the par-5 fifth hole to join the leaders at 3 under par.
Clutch pars down the stretch kept Beckman near the lead. He sank a 10-footer for par at the par-3 seventh but missed the fairway at No. 8. Beckman was forced to pitch out into the short grass with his second but knocked his third to 3 feet. He holed the par save to remain in a tie for first place.
At the par-4 ninth, Beckman played his second 25 feet right of the hole. He drained the birdie putt to distance himself from the logjam at 3 under and take the first-round lead in a PGA Tour event for the first time since the 2000 Michelob Championship at Kingsmill.
'I'm actually surprised that the scores are the way they are. I would never thought 4 under par,' said Beckman. 'I putted great today and it feels good.'
Curtis tallied three birdies on the front nine but three-putted for bogey on the 14th. He got within one of the lead at the 17th when he hit a 6-iron to 2 feet for a kick-in birdie.
'I'm pleased with the round,' said Curtis, who missed the cut at the Masters last week. 'You had to be very careful with your shots. I hit three or four fairways where I had to hook it or slice it around a tree just to get it on the green. You had to have a little imagination out there.'
Haas, who was near the lead after the first round at Augusta but faded throughout the tournament, was 1 over par with six holes to play on Thursday. He birdied four of his last six holes to post his 68.
Slocum was 3 under on his round but drove into the water at the 11th. He dropped and knocked his third on to the green but three-putted for a double bogey.
He rebounded with a birdie at 14, then drained a 40-footer for birdie at 16 to polish off his 68.
'I played great today,' said Slocum. 'I got off to a good start, hit a lot of fairways and the ones I missed, I missed in the right spot, which is really key out here.'
Byrd mixed four birdies and a bogey in his round on Thursday, while Pampling saw a little bit of everything in the first round. He collected an eagle, five birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey for his share of second place.
Ernie Els, who finished one shot behind Phil Mickelson at last week's Masters, carded a 2-under-par 69 on Thursday and is part of a logjam in seventh place. Among the notable players tied with Els two shots off the lead are: Nick Price, Bay Hill Invitational winner Chad Campbell and BellSouth Classic champion Zach Johnson.
Davis Love III, a five-time winner and defending champion, opened with a 1-over-par 72 on Thursday.