Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard set the clubhouse target on seven under, a shot ahead of the South African duo of Dean Burmester and Darren Fichardt, leaving Fitzpatrick in a tie for fourth.
Alongside him is former champion Rory McIlroy, who carded his best opening round in the event.
Fitzpatrick got off to a hot start, birdieing three of the first four holes, and moved to five under by gaining further shots at both 11 and 12. He retrieved a shot dropped at 15 with a birdie at 17 before making par at the last despite a penalty drop.
“It’s always nice to get off to a good start, but to birdie three of the first four holes was very pleasing,” said Fitzpatrick.
“I felt like I had the ball under control all day and drove it very, very well, which is important around here.”
McIlroy was distracted by a trigger-happy photographer on his second shot to the par-5 18th and needed a lucky bounce off a tree to avoid going out of bounds.
After almost holing the resulting pitch for an eagle, McIlroy disappointingly missed from three feet for a birdie. However, a 67 was still one shot better than he managed in the first round on his way to victory in 2014
“It’s a tough enough golf shot without something going off at the top of your swing, but it happens,” McIlroy said of the incident on the 18th, for which he received a swift apology from the photographer.
“It’s fine. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it.”
Woodsome Hall’s Chris Hanson will have to dip below par to make it through to the weekend, but increased his chances enormously with an eagle three at the 521-yard 18th for a 74.
He had three bogeys in the first five holes plus one birdie, and then repeated the pattern exactly at the start of his homeward run before brightening his day with the eagle.
Fitzpatrick’s fellow Sheffielder and 2016 Ryder Cup team-mate Danny Willett was unable to make good use of the excellent platform he gave himself by being two under with two holes to play on the way out.
He gave both shots back with a double bogey at the 391-yard eighth and then dropped three more in four holes after the turn. He rallied briefly with a birdie two at the 179-yard 14th before enduring his second double bogey six of the round, at the 15th.
The former masters champion birdied the last for an opening 75.
“I’m a little frustrated I couldn’t get a birdie or two out of the last couple of holes, but overall it’s a really good start. I played a lot better than I have done the last couple of weeks.
“I saw some good shots out there, better drives, and putted well for the most part. If I can just do more of the same over the next three days, I should have a decent chance.”
McIlroy was joined on five under par by Ryder Cup team-mate Matt Fitzpatrick and fellow Englishman Richard Bland, whose effort was witnessed by his brother Heath as he recovers from a life-threatening illness which saw him placed in an induced coma for a month at the end of last year.
Bland, who is seeking a first European Tour title at the 433rd attempt, said: “It’s going to take some more time but he’s on the road to recovery. We were a close family anyway but this has brought us even closer.
“He thought he had the flu and was just feeling a bit rough, but it turned out he had a virus which stopped his heart and they had to put him in an induced coma. It knocked us for six, especially as it was over Christmas.
“I’m certainly not going to make excuses for my golf [he has missed five straight cuts] but it was not easy, especially at the start of the year, but it certainly puts things into perspective. Even though I’ve had a tough time on the course, it’s really not that bad.”
Fitzpatrick admitted he is enjoying the comforts of home after spending much of the season on the PGA Tour, but knows the pressure is now on to secure a second consecutive Ryder Cup appearance.
Points earned from now on are multiplied by 1.5 and the 23-year-old from Sheffield, who is just outside the automatic qualifying places, said: “That makes it a little bit exciting. I think it will be interesting come the end of all the points to see what the team is.
“If you throw in one or two unlikely winners it could skew things a little bit. It probably puts pressure on the boys that are kind of expected to make the team because they’ve got to play well.”