Woods shot 2-under 70 to put him one back of Aaron Baddeley, Trevor Immelman, Stewart Cink, Jonathan Kaye, J.L. Lewis and Jeff Maggert.
''This golf course doesn't let up, which is good,'' Baddeley said. ''You're going to find out who's playing the best this week.''
Woods is tied with 1990 champion Robert Gamez, Nick Faldo, Ben Crane, Brad Faxon and Marco Dawson.
Els appeared on course to join the jumble at the top before coming unraveled at the par-3 14th. The 1998 champion hit his tee shot into the left greenside bunker, and barely advanced his next shot out of the hazard. He seemed safe when he pitched his third shot to four feet. But after running the bogey effort two feet past the hole, he rushed the comebacker and wound up with a three-putt triple bogey.
I tried to keep a big number off my scorecard, said Els. I didnt quite do that.
That dropped him to 2-over for the day. He almost fell further back when his second shot on the par-5 16th barely escaped the water. He got up and down from 50 feet for birdie, only to give it right back with a bogey at the par-3 17th. He then saved par at the last after his approach shot caromed off the rocks on the right side of the green into one of the left-hand bunkers.
It could have gone in the water. I made 4, so I guess I got away with something, he said after posting a 2-over 74.
Els and Woods are meeting for the first time this season in a stroke-play event. Woods has won two times in three starts following knee surgery. Els has four victories in six worldwide tournaments.
This is probably the toughest course Ive played all year, Els said. I didnt play a very good round of golf today, but Im off early tomorrow.
Im not totally out of it.
Woods, who is trying to become the first player since 1927 to win the same event four straight years, has shot just one round in the 70s in each of his last three victorious campaigns. In addition to the conditions, he found the inconsistency of the greens particularly troubling Thursday.
You dont know; thats the problem. Some of the greens are really firm and some greens arent,' Woods said.
That, however, changed as the 90-degree heat and 15-20 mph winds continued to dry out the landing surface.
'The greens are unbelievable; theyre really firm, said Els, who played in the afternoon. It was a great test of golf today.
Only 19 players managed to break par, and no one got lower than 5-under at any point on the day.
Woods made four birdies and two bogeys in the first round. He was plodding along at even par until he birdied two of his final three holes.
He hit the green in two on the par-5 16th and two-putted from 38 feet. He then made an eight-footer at the last. The final birdie was potentially perilous. After leaving a 2-iron tee shot just shy of the lake that protects the front and entire right side of the green, he hit a pitching wedge, from 156 yards, that came a little too close to the water hazard before settling behind the hole.
I didnt mean to land it that short, Woods said of his approach shot. I meant to land it to the hole and let it skip past and take a putt at it.
Walking up the fairway, Woods security was caught off guard when a little girl ran out to give Tiger a hug and a miniature American flag.
This is the third year ' she usually gives me flowers in the Pro-Am and she did again this year. Shes just a little sweetheart, he said.
Many in Tigers crowd werent about to leave the premises after his round. About 15 minutes after Woods finished speaking with the media, tournament host Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus teed off at the same time on parallel holes.
After exchanging pleasantries in a chance meeting, Nicklaus went first on the first hole. The massive gallery then literally turned its attention about 30 yards to the right -- players on the practice green even paused to take notice -- where Palmer soon followed. Both found the fairway.
That was about their only highlight.
Palmer shot 15-over 87, two shots removed from the worst score of the day.
'I'm disappointed in the way I played but you can't expect a hell of a lot,' he said. 'I didn't expect to break par but I didn't expect to shoot quite as high as I did.'
Nicklaus didnt fare much better. He was standing on solid ground at 1-over through 12 holes before a triple bogey at the par-4 13th. He then bogeyed 15, doubled 17 and tripled 18 for a 10-over 82. He played his final six holes in 9-over.
Nicklaus, who is trying to decide whether or not he wants to play in The Masters, left the course without talking to reporters.