The tournament host and ambassador set the early clubhouse target after carding six birdies and a lone bogey, although he ended the first day one shot adrift of Jbe Kruger and Andy Sullivan.
Els, looking to rebound from a winless 2014 campaign on both sides of the Atlantic, started at the 10th and appeared to be in for a long day when he bogeyed the 12th, but he responded impressively with three birdies over the next four holes.
He picked up further shots at the second and fifth, and he capped an excellent day in some style with a sublime approach to two feet at the ninth to set up a closing birdie which gave him the lead over Jorge Garcia Pinto, who got to seven under before dropping shots at each of the last three holes.
“That was nice,” said Els, who failed to register a top-three finish on the European Tour last season for the first time since 1992. “I was a little nervous here and there but it was so nice to play Glendower in front of my home crowd.”
Els reverted to a normal putter in the latter part of last year ahead of the ban on anchored strokes which comes into effect in 2016, and admitted short putts were “still a little bit nerve-wracking”.
However, the home favourite was delighted with the state of his long game following the Christmas break, and he told Sports 4: “I have been working on my irons a little bit, taking a little distance off and trying not to hit them too hard.
“Coming off the fairway they were coming out nice and crisp so I enjoyed my iron shots today.
“We have had a nice start now and I want to keep it up, get better on the greens a little more and see where we end up.”
But the four-time major winner was outshone by his compatriot Kruger, who cruised to the turn in 34 and defied a delay in play due to an approaching lightning storm as he birdied four of the last six holes to cap a flawless 66.
Kruger’s effort was later matched by Sullivan, who enjoyed a stunning run of form around the turn as he carded five birdies in seven holes from the eighth and then rolled in an eagle putt at the 15th.
Sullivan, who famously win a trip to space for a hole-in-one at last year’s KLM Open in the Netherlands, parred in to remain at six under, while Els was joined in a share of third by Lasse Jensen and Richard Sterne, who birdied five of the last seven holes.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who also had a barren season last year, produced a solid five-birdie 68 to join Garcia Pinto, David Drysdale and Colin Nel on four under par.
English rookie Tom Murray opened with a confident 69 along with former European Ryder Cup stars Niclas Fasth and Eduardo Molinari, but pre-tournament favourite Branden Grace dropped four shots in as many holes towards the end of his round as he settled for a 71.