Sheffield’s Matt Fitzpatrick fired six birdies and an eagle in an opening seven-under-64 to lead by one from compatriot Lee Slattery, Scotland’s Marc Warren, Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Sweden’s Robert Karlsson.
Irish duo Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington were part of a six-strong group on five under, with Donald a shot further back and a “nervous” tournament host Poulter carding a 68.
Fitzpatrick is in his first full season on the European Tour after coming through the qualifying school last November, but is currently 36th on the Race to Dubai after three top-three finishes in his last seven events.
“Same again this week would be lovely,” the 21-year-old former US Amateur champion told Press Association Sport. “It’s a great start today and I just need to keep working hard on my game.
“It was a tough start to the year and I missed a few cuts in a row, although I felt like I was playing all right, but now I am playing decent and getting the results I am looking for.
“I started hitting a fade in Switzerland (where he finished second) and maybe have a little bit more control over the ball now; the bad ones are not as destructive.”
The British Masters was last played in 2008, but has returned to the European Tour schedule with Poulter, Donald, Westwood and Justin Rose taking turns to act as tournament host at different venues.
Donald is considering options including The Grove in Hertfordshire or links courses in the south east of England, while Westwood favours Close House in the north east. Rose is understood to be hosting the tournament at Walton Heath next year.
“We want to play more tournaments in Europe,” admitted former European number one Karlsson, who was denied a share of the lead by his solitary bogey of the day on the 18th.
“I’ve been on tour for 25 years and when I started there were six or seven in England. To have just one sponsored by the Germans (BMW PGA Championship) does not feel right.”
Warren had set the early target after making the most of new equipment and his opportunity to impress playing partner Darren Clarke, who will captain the European Ryder Cup team at Hazeltine next year.
“I like testing new equipment, but unless it’s absolutely right it doesn’t go in the bag,” Warren said. “I’ve used the same ball and irons for three years and the driver for a year, so this is rare for me.”
Equally rare is a former world number one being dumped by their caddie, but that is what happened to Donald at the end of the PGA Tour season last month, with John McLaren ending their six-year relationship.
“I was a little surprised,” admitted Donald, who had won nine times around the world alongside McLaren and became the first player to top the money list on both sides of the Atlantic in the same season in 2011. “We were starting to find some form, but John is a strong-willed guy. He has his own opinions and he felt like it was time for a change.
“I understand my game pretty well. I just want someone that’s very supportive, encouraging and upbeat.
“I have not had a really good chance to win, but the consistency seems to be coming back and I am starting to show some evidence of good wedge play and putting. I am happy with the way it’s trending.”
Poulter admitted he was nervous on the first tee as a large crowd took advantage of 15,000 free tickets offered by tournament supporter Sky Sports.
“That’s a feeling I have not had for a little while, but it was a nice feeling,” Poulter said. “It makes you focus, especially on a Thursday.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into the week. There are big responsibilities, lots of things to do, lots of commitments. You have to manage those, but you can have the buzz on that first tee because you’ve spent a bit of time. You care about it. The Tour has done a great job and Sky Sports has done a great job. It’s good that we have got this back on the calendar.”