Ernie Els and Ben Curtis made their share of birdies on a tough Muirfield Village course Thursday. What made them co-leaders in the first round of the Memorial was finishing with a par.

The last two British Open champions scrambled for par on the 18th hole -- Els from a bunker, Curtis with a delicate pitch up the hill -- and wound up with 4-under-par 68s, the highest score to lead at the Memorial in 14 years.

"It was quite a ride there at the end," Els said.

He was talking about his back nine -- only two pars -- but he could have been speaking for so many others.

Five players -- J.L. Lewis, Stephen Ames, John Rollins, Arron Oberholser and Darren Fichardt -- all came to the 18th hole with at least a share of the lead until bad shots, bad breaks and big numbers sent them back to the pack.

Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh made pars on No. 18, but little good that did them.

Woods hit a few wayward shots at the start and end of his round, but otherwise was out of harm's way for a 72. Singh, No. 2 in the world and playing with Woods for the first time this year, had a miserable time with his putter and had to scramble to salvage a 73.

Jack Nicklaus, the 64-year-old tournament host, had a 74 and has a decent chance to make the cut.

Despite soft conditions in the fairway that speckled tee shots with mud when they landed, the greens were fast, the wind was swirling and good scores were hard to come by. The 68 was the highest first-round lead at this tournament since 1990, when Fred Couples led with a 69.

Not many were surprised.

"Where they're tucking the flags, you can really look silly if you miss it," Els said.

Els holed a 50-foot eagle putt on No. 7 to get into the mix, then settled in to his roller-coaster back nine that included a three-putt bogey from 20 feet and a bunker shot he holed for birdie on 17.

Curtis hasn't had a top 10 finish since his stunning victory at Royal St. George's last year, but his game is slowly coming around. He played bogey-free, a feat in itself at Muirfield, and surged to the top behind three straight birdies, culminating with a 30-footer at No. 10.

Curtis, who grew up 20 minutes away in the town of Ostrander, played the Memorial for the first time last year on a sponsor's exemption, although only his close friends and family knew much about him.

The cheers were much louder Thursday, in part because of his birdie binge, in part because of that silver claret jug.

"Every hole that I went up to, people were clapping and it felt good," Curtis said. "Whereas last year, I could hear the familiar voices yelling out to me."

Couples was in a large group at 69 that also included Paul Azinger, Lee Janzen, Todd Hamilton and Zach Johnson.

Woods hit into a bunker on the opening hole, then hit a fat chip and had to save bogey. Then, he hit his driver on No. 2 so far to the right that he cleared the creek and nearly went out-of-bounds. He saved par with a 20-foot putt.

Singh missed nine putts inside 12 feet -- four for birdie.