Poulter was a joint-leader at one under par heading to the last on a day of difficult scoring for the 156-man field.
Søren Kjeldsen of Denmark had been the very early leader ahead of Italy's Edoardo Molinari as play got under way at Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Pacific Ocean coast on a cool dry morning that was firming up already fast, small greens.
Yet as the first round took shape in California, Korea's KJ Choi assumed the leadership as he reached three under par after 14 holes, one shot ahead of former Masters Tournament champion Mike Weir of Canada and American David Toms, the former US PGA Championship winner.
Poulter, the World Number Eight, was going steadily at one under par after 12 holes having recovered from a bogey at the second hole and he shared a tie for third with Spanish debutant Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who was playing the final hole of his round at the ninth.
“I just played really solid,” said Poulter. “I didn’t miss many greens and drove it well. I gave myself plenty of looks from the right side of the pins.
“You need to do that around this golf course. It’s all about distance control with your irons - you can drive it well and have a few looks at birdie and you can put together a good score. One under is a good score today.
“It’s my first time here and I love it and the fact that you don’t have to hit driver on a lot of holes. It’s about positional play.
“I like small greens and tricky around the greens so therefore my short game can come into play when needed and it did today a number of times. I worked hard this week and that was a good reward today.
“I made two bogeys today, if you limit your bogeys to two a day that’s good. I managed to make a very difficult up and down at the last so if I can limit myself to that it’s good.”
Without a European winner since Tony Jacklin's 1970 victory at Hazeltine, the US Open Championship has become an elusive prize for the continent's golfers with Colin Montgomerie a three-time runner-up while Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Miguel Angel Jimenez have also just missed out.
Yet when Choi dropped a shot at 15th to fall back to two under, Poulter birdied the 13th and moved into a four-way lead with Toms and Weir.
Cabrera-Bello, from the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, parred his final hole at the ninth to take the clubhouse lead at one under par with an opening round of 70, while American Craig Barlow was the only other player under par, one under after 12 holes.
Both Poulter and Choi came back to join the Spaniard on one under, the Korean dropping a shot at the famous par three 17th while England's World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play champion bogeyed the par five 14th.
And Weir joined them with bogeys on his last two holes to get to the clubhouse with a 70, while Toms fell off the pace with three bogeys in a row.
Luke Donald, one of four Englishmen in the world's top ten, was in the clubhouse at level par following his two-birdie, one double bogey round of 71.
Kjeldsen had a disappointing end to a day that had begun with the Dane reaching three under after six holes, finishing with a one over 72.
Italy's Edoardo Molinari could not steer his round home, either having dropped two shots on the back nine to return to level par, double bogeying both the 17th and par five 18th on the way to a four over 75.
Ireland's three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington and Masters Tournament champion Phil Mickelson were similarly frustrated.
Harrington, just three weeks on from undergoing minor knee surgery, had started brightly on the back nine with a birdie at the 11th before he bogeyed the par four 15th while five-time US Open runner-up Mickelson, who turned 40 yesterday, was the model of consistency as he opened with six straight pars.
Both Mickelson and Harrington's rounds took turns for the worse, however, as the Irishman bogeyed the 15th, 16th and the par three 17th, and the American bogeyed the 16th and 17th.
There was further trouble for Mickelson at the 18th, his ninth, when the left-hander's second shot from the right of the fairway bounced off the sea wall down the left and into the ocean on his way to a further bogey.
Harrington then bogeyed the second and third holes while Mickelson joined him at four over with a bogey on his 13th.
Mickelson had a rare birdie opportunity at the par five sixth, his 15th, but his putter failed him from four feet and the World Number Two stayed birdie-less at four over.
The American steadied the ship with two more pars while Harrington birdied his 15th and then his last at the ninth to finish with a two over 73.
Mickelson had a chance at the last but his 20 foot birdie putt just missed and he settled for a 75 as co-favourite and World Number One Tiger Woods prepared to tee off in the afternoon wave of starters alongside England's Lee Westwood and Ernie Els of South Africa.