David Lynn is alone in second at 7-under-par 65, followed by Terry Price, who shot a 6-under 66 to take third place.
Els began on the back nine Thursday and flew out of the gate with four birdies in his first five holes. At the par-5 15th, Els needed only a 6-iron to reach the green in two and converted a six-foot eagle try before another birdie at 16 to get to 7-under through seven holes.
The reigning British Open champion parred the last two holes on his first nine but immediately returned to birdie form at No. 1. Els chipped to two feet at the short par-4 and magical numbers like 59 popped into the South African's head.
'When I chipped to two feet and holed for birdie at my 10th hole I must admit I began to think some silly stuff then,' said Els, whose drives averaged 315 yards on Thursday. 'It was just for a split second but then I came down to earth the hole later when I made bogey.'
Els dropped a shot at No. 2 - his 11th - but rebounded with a birdie at the third. He bogeyed the fourth to fall to 7-under but a birdie at the par-5 seventh returned Els to 8-under par and sole possession of first place.
'That is as good as I have played in my recent run of victories,' said Els. 'I made one long putt on the 12th for birdie but the rest of them weren't that long. I hit some really good shots and felt in the groove. Out of 10, my front nine was a nine, and my back nine was a seven, so I'll give myself eight out of 10 in total for the round.'
Els is unquestionably the hottest player in the world. He opened the PGA Tour season with a record-setting performance at the Mercedes Championships and followed a week later with a playoff win at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He finished one stroke out of first at the Caltex Masters three weeks ago but successfully defended his title at the Heineken Classic the following week.
Lynn was flawless on Thursday with seven birdies and no bogeys. Lynn, who tied for fourth at the Heineken Classic, just returned three weeks ago after taking 10 weeks off to buy a new house.
'Myself and my brother really got stuck into the house and totally redecorated the place,' said Lynn. 'It was nice to get away from the golf for a while and do something completely different although I found it was a bit of a grind near the end. It is good to be back playing.'
Ian Woosnam, Paul McGinley, Peter O'Malley, Chris Downes and Brett Rumford share fourth place at 5-under-par 67. Twelve players are tied for ninth at 4-under par, including Nick Faldo, Justin Rose and Thomas Bjorn.
Retief Goosen, who cruised to an eight-shot victory in 2002, only managed an even-par 72 on Thursday. Sergio Garcia, who injured his leg before the tournament but stayed in the event, struggled to a 2-over 74.