Emanuele Canonica and Marcel Siem share second place after rounds of 6-under-par 66. Colin Montgomerie, who is not qualified for the U.S. Open in two weeks, posted a 5-under 67 and is tied for fourth with Christian Cevaer and Steven O'Hara.
Howell flew out of the gate Thursday with three birdies in his first five holes, but an errant drive at the sixth cost him a stroke. He parred the remaining three holes for a front-nine, 2-under 34.
The 28-year-old Englishman tallied three birdies in a row from the 10th to get within one of the lead held in the clubhouse by Canonica and Siem. Howell birdied 16 and 18 to take sole possession of the lead.
'I hit one bad drive on the sixth, but other than that it was pretty much down the middle and on the green with birdie chances on most holes,' said Howell. 'I'm delighted to get off to a fast start and feel I am right in there for the tournament.'
Howell won the 1999 Dubai Desert Classic and came in second behind Steen Tinning at the inaugural Wales Open in 2000. In 2004, he has three top-10 finishes, proof of hard work with coach Clive Tucker.
'Over the last 18 months I have moved up a gear in my own game,' said Howell. 'I haven't won in that time, but the consistency is on a completely different level.'
Canonica, ranked first on the European Tour in driving distance, birdied the first, then nailed a 400-yard drive on the par-5 second. He hit a 6-iron on to the putting surface, as opposed to the 3-wood playing partner Gary Orr hit, and rolled home the eagle putt.
He birdied three in a row from the fifth, but parred his final 11 holes.
'I played well and my game is a lot better than the last couple of weeks,' said Canonica. 'I missed just the one green, but almost a perfect day. With my length, I do have chances on the par-5s.'
Siem, who was in the hunt last week at the Volvo PGA Championship until a 75-73 on the weekend, recorded five birdies over his opening eight holes. He bogeyed the ninth, but collected birdies at 13 and 16 to grab his piece of second place.
'I felt a bit of pressure today as my last weekend's play was not good,' said Siem, who won this year's dunhill championship. 'I also had a good start the previous week in Germany, but didn't play well at the weekend so I wanted to give myself another chance at the weekend this week.'
Montgomerie, a seven-time Order of Merit winner, was bogey-free on Thursday with five birdies. He has been struggling this season and since his fall from the top-50 in the World Rankings, is not eligible for either the U.S. Open or British Open.
The Scotsman won earlier this season in Singapore, but in his last four starts, Montgomerie's best finish was a tie for 16th at the British Masters in early May.
'I have an early tee time tomorrow so I want to try and build on what we've started,' said Montgomerie. 'One round doesn't make a summer, but at the same time it is the best I have done for a while and I am reasonably happy with that.'
David Carter, Mikko Ilonen, Robert Karlsson, Stuart Little, Jarrod Moseley, Gary Murphy and Nobuhito Sato are knotted in seventh place at 4-under-par 68.
Ian Poulter, the 2003 winner, opened his title defense with a 1-under-par 71.