ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Fitzpatrick managed to avoid bogeys on a Bay Hill course so firm he could barely find any pitch marks on the greens Saturday. It led to a five-under-par 67 and a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy going into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy, who has not successfully defended any of his 22 wins worldwide, birdied three of his last four holes for a 66. He will be in the final group for the third time in five events this year.
Fitzpatrick was at nine-under 207, which spoke to the difficulty of a fast course that would have made Palmer proud. It was the highest 54-hole score to lead at Bay Hill since Ben Crenshaw was at 210 in 1993.
That would have surprised no one who had to play it, especially late in the warm afternoon, with greens that looked yellow and fairways that felt tighter in such firm conditions.
Fitzpatrick, a five-time winner on the European Tour over the last four years, said that he was not aware that Keegan Bradley and Tommy Fleetwood, the leaders after 36 holes, had quickly gone in reverse. But it did not take him long to figure it out. He hit a sand wedge from 115 yards to just inside 10 feet, and he could not even find where the ball landed.
“So when you see that, you know it’s going to be in for tough, fiery greens,” Fitzpatrick said. “But the condition of the greens is fantastic and they have been all week, so I think that that’s what make it’s so great.”
McIlroy hit a pitching wedge that settled a foot away for a tap-in on the 15th, hit a pitch over the bunker from right of the green on the par-5 16th for a 4-foot birdie, and then finished with another pitching wedge to 10 feet for one last birdie.
Those birdies were big. The pars were not bad, either.
“I felt for part of the round today that I was hanging on,” said McIlroy, who trailed by two shots after three rounds last year. “You hit it up to 25, 30 feet, you take your two-putts, you move on and know you’re not going to lose any ground on the field.”
There are plenty of others still in the mix. Fitzpatrick looked at the electronic leader board next to him and figured every name had a chance. There were 15 names, all five shots or less off the lead. And if the board were one line bigger, it would have shown Fleetwood, who made a 6-foot putt on the 18th hole for his first birdie of the day and a 76. He also was five back.
“Today someone was saying it’s a bit like a U.S. Open, which I could totally see,” Fitzpatrick said. “It only takes a couple of water balls from the top five guys, a few dropped shots early, and all of a sudden you sort of are not looking like you’re in a great position.”
Bradley did not have a par until the sixth hole, and only one of those was a birdie. He missed the fairway on No. 1 (bogey), hit into a bunker on No. 2 (bogey), three-putted for bogey on No. 3 and had another bogey from the bunker on No. 5.
He rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 75, and while that big fist pump seemed out of place for someone who endured such a tough day, he had reason to cheer. After all that, Bradley was just three shots behind, as were four others.
Aaron Baddeley and Matt Wallace each had a 69, and Kevin Kisner had a 70. They were at 209, still very much in the game.
McIlroy sees some similarities to his victory last year at Bay Hill. He started slowly and began to hit his stride, playing a little bit better each day. He also went to one of the Disney parks after finishing early Friday, just like last year when he was at Magic Kingdom and rode Space Mountain.
This year’s ride?
“Tower of Terror,” he said, and that might be appropriate if the conditions at Bay Hill stay this way.
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