Els, who finished second in each of the year's first two majors, shot an eight-birdie, two-bogey 6-under-par 66 to lead Woods and Steve Flesch by one shot. The 30-year-old South African carded four birdies and one bogey on both the outward and inward halves, with his final birdie coming courtesy of a 10-foot putt at the treacherous 'Road Hole' 17th.
This is the first time Els has led after any round in a major championship since he won the 1997 U.S. Open. Last week, he broke a 17-month winless streak at the Standard Life Loch Lomond. He seems to have carried that momentum from Glasgow to St. Andrews.
'After last week's win, I feel on form,' Els said. 'I have a lot of confidence now.'
In reference to the last time he and Woods did battle, Els said: 'If he beats me by 15 shots from now, there would be an inquiry.'
While Els is trying to add the Claret Jug to his pair of U.S. Open trophies, Woods is in search of the career Grand Slam. Woods, who won the '97 Masters, '99 PGA Championship and 2000 U.S. Open, started slowly, but caught fire in the middle of his round. Tiger parred his first eight holes on Thursday, before playing his next seven in 5-under. His first birdie of the day came at the 9th. He then picked up another at the 10th. Then another at the 13th. And at the 14th. And at the 15th. Woods finished the day as he began, with a string of pars.
On a mild, breezy day in Scotland, Woods only found trouble once while playing around the Old Course. At the 17th, Woods hit his tee shot into the left knee-high grass. With all his strength, Tiger chopped through the hay and forced his ball to the front of the green, from where he got up and down for par.
'I figured anything in red would be good,' said Woods, 'and I've accomplished that.'
Woods is trying to become the 5th player, and youngest at 24, to win the career Grand Slam. He looks to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, who are the only players in golf history to capture each of the four current majors.
While Woods was saving par early, his former college teammate, Notah Begay III, was blistering the course. Seven-under through 16 holes, Begay entered the 17th with the lead. But just as Woods would eventually do, Begay found the rough off the tee. However, unlike Woods, Begay hit his second shot into the Swilken Burn. To the delight of the crowd, Begay rolled up his pants, stepped into the water (shoes still on) and played his ball where it lay. He did manage to get his ball out, but eventually made triple-bogey. Begay also bogeyed the 18th to shoot a 3-under-par 69.
'That was more fun than taking a drop,' Begay said of his shot out of the burn. 'It wasn't a bad start. I wish it could have been better.'
Begay is seeking his third consecutive PGA TOUR victory. He won his last two starts at the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic and the Canon Greater Hartford Open.
At 5-under, Woods is tied with Flesch, who is making his first career Open appearance. The two lead a number of other players by one, including Dennis Paulson, Tom Lehman, Shigeki Maruyama, Padraig Harrington, Scott Dunlap, Sergio Garcia and Ian Garbutt. Garbutt made four straight threes on the front and was 7-under through 12 holes, but bogeyed the 13th, 15th and 17th to finish the day at 4-under-par.
Garcia was 21 shots better on Thursday than he was a year ago at the Open. In 1999, Garcia shot 89-83 to miss the cut at Carnoustie. St. Andrews proved to be more friendly in the first round. The 20-year-old Spaniard chipped in for eagle on the par-5 14th en route to his 4-under-par 68.
Paul Lawrie opened his title defense with a career-high 41 putts in a 6-over-par 78. 1999 runners-up Justin Leonard and Jean Van de Velde are at 2-under and 1-under, respectively. John Daly, who won the last time the Open was contended at St. Andrews in 1995 shot 76. Jack Nicklaus, playing in perhaps his final Open Championship, shot 77.