DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Ernie Els shot a 6-under-par 66 Thursday and was one stroke behind Scotland's Alistair Forsyth after the first round of the $1.9 million Dubai Desert Classic.
Els, the defending champion and winner of four of five events he has played in this season, is the top-ranked player in the tournament.
Tiger Woods pulled out of the event because of a possible U.S.-led attack of Iraq. Former champion Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and Nick Faldo of England also withdrew because of rising tension in the area.
Els made one birdie on the front nine and birdied Nos. 10, 12, 17 and 18 to charge up the leaderboard.
"You had to work a bit. I birdied my third hole and you know, that settled me a little bit," said Els, who set the course record in 1994 with a 61.
"I think the greens are rolling perfect, like usual, and that gives me a good chance to make some birdies. All I have to do is to keep it in play and play my shots and try and make some putts."
Forsyth had four birdies in a front-nine 31, and added birdies at Nos. 13, 17, and 18 to seize the lead from Els, who played in the morning.
"I feel I don't get overly confident, certainly far from arrogant or anything like that, and obviously, if it is Ernie Els sitting there in second place, its a different ball game, especially the way he has been playing," Forsyth said.
Nick Dougherty, Greg Owen, Sven Struver, Mikko Ilonen, Ian Donaldson and Robert-Jan Derksen are tied for third after opening 67s.
Mark O'Meara opened with a 4-under 68 and was tied for ninth.