Over the first 18 holes, Andrew McLardy of South Africa, and Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Nick Dougherty of England all shot 5-under-par 67. The quartet has a 1-shot lead over England's David Howell, Raphael Jacquelin of France, Ireland's Peter Lawrie, and defending champion Angel Cabrera of Argentina, who are 4-under 68.
Cabrera was pleased with his play.
"I was hitting the ball well today," he said. "I was able to keep out of trouble so that was good."
"It was a good test but if you played properly today, you'd shoot under-par," said Els, who is making a comeback after left knee surgery.
2014: The Year in Music [PHOTOS]