Austrian tyro Marcel Hirscher set the pace in the first leg of the slalom on Sunday, but American Ted Ligety's bid for a fourth gold at the world championships was dashed after he bombed out.
Hirscher, 23, took advantage of his early starting number to nail the Planai course in 55.56sec, a very comfortable 0.28sec ahead of Germany's Felix Neureuther.
"The first run went very well for me," said Hirscher. "I enjoyed skiing in front of my fans and on a nice first leg.
"For the second leg, there's a lot of suspense, the time deficits are pretty tight and everything's possible."
But there was heartbreak for Ligety as he bounced messily around one gate and landed awkardly, one of his skis breaking free to leave him looking back up the slope in regret.
It meant the American could not add to his medal haul of three golds (super-G, super combined, giant slalom), the first time a male skier has achieved that feat since France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968.
With Ligety out of contention, attention will now focus completely on Hirscher in the second leg as he attempts to win a first individual medal for the host nation.
Hirscher was part of the Austrian squad that won gold in the team event and also claimed silver behind Ligety in the giant slalom, but has been feeling the pressure from a medal-hungry public in this ski-mad nation.
An estimated 42,000 fans crowded around the cramped finish area, Austrian flags waving in a boisterous atmosphere more like that in a football stadium than a ski race.
Should Hirscher stumble, he has a host of teammates well poised for a podium push in the top 10 that reads like a who's who of slalom racing.
World champions Mario Matt (2001, 2007), Manfred Pranger (2009) and Benjamin Raich (2005) were lying third, sixth and eighth respectively, the latter at 0.99sec.
Just behind Raich was 2003 world champion Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, tied at 1.00sec with French hope Alexis Pinturault.
Pinturault's teammate, injury-plagued defending champion Jean-Baptiste Grange, was slighty more off the pace at 1.80sec.
Other contenders for the podium will be giant slalom bronze medallist Manfred Moelgg of Italy (at 0.65sec), German Fritz Dopfer (0.66) and Sweden's Andre Myhrer (0.78).