Vijay Singh, who has never won this event, battled a balky putter on Thursday, but still posted a 3-under-par 70. He is alone in second place at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort.
This event is reserved for PGA Tour winners from the 2005 season. Four players - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington - qualified, but elected to skip the week.
Ernie Els, the fifth-ranked player in the world, did not qualify for the tournament as he missed significant time in the 2005 season because of knee surgery.
Swirling wind and new green surfaces confused some players on Thursday. Eleven of the 28 competitors have never played in this tournament and all of those factors added up to only nine players breaking par.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, 2001 Mercedes Championships winner Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard, basking in the Rose Bowl victory of his University of Texas Longhorns on Wednesday night, were the other players to break par. They each shot 1-under-par 72s.
Despite the missing stars in the field this week, Browne is one of the most intriguing stories of the 28 who teed it up on Thursday. He made a serious run at last year's U.S. Open, then broke through at the Deutsche Bank Championship. He collected the PGA Tour's Comeback Player of the Year Award for his efforts.
Browne collected his first birdie of the round at the par-5 fifth. He reached the back edge of the green with his second and two-putted. Browne parred No. 6, made a tricky birdie putt at the seventh, then hit a 6-iron to 13 feet to set up another birdie at the par-3 eighth.
The 44-year-old got to 4 under par at the 10th when he ran home a 8-footer. Browne became the only competitor to get to minus-5 and it came in a strange fashion. The wind wreaked havoc with his approach at 13 and the ball rolled off the putting surface. Browne chipped in for birdie from 45 feet and was thankful to be where he was on the leaderboard.
'I stole one on 13,' admitted Browne. 'It was not an easy shot. I got pretty lucky there I think. That ball is round and that hole is too. You get some that go and some that don't.'
The wind got Browne again, this time on the par-5 15th. His lay up got tangled in the rough and his third hit the green and came back. Browne chipped to 8 feet, but missed the par putt and fell to 4 under par.
'It's hard to get the ball close all the time. The wind is gusting,' said Browne, whose win last year was his first on tour since the 1999 Colonial. 'There's plenty of trouble out there. I know I'm thrilled to be here.'
Singh struggled with the flat stick on Thursday and it's not a total surprise. He ranked 108th in putting last year on the PGA Tour and it showed early. Singh missed two putts inside 10 feet, one for birdie at the second and the other for par at three.
His approach spun to 3 feet to set up birdie at the fourth, but the putting woes continued. Singh once again failed to convert birdie tries from inside 8 feet at the fifth and eighth, but moved up the leaderboard with birdies at seven and nine.
Singh lipped out for par from 3 feet at the 11th. He rebounded with a 7-footer for par at the 13th, then back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16 got him within one of the lead.
Wes Short, Jr., another University of Texas product, managed an even-par 73 and is part of group knotted in 10th place. Mark Calcavecchia and Ted Purdy joined Calcavecchia four shots out of the lead.