Rory McIlroy will have his chance to make it back-to-back at Bay Hill on Sunday.
McIlroy got out early and fashioned a nifty 66 that gave him the lead until late in the day when England’s Matt Fitzpatrick bested him by a shot.
McIlroy’s 66 got him to eight-under par and he had the tough afternoon off. Fitzpatrick scored birdies at 15 and 16 then made scrambling pars at 17 and 18 for a 67 that handed him the 54-hole lead at nine-under. Fitzpatrick, who has never won on the PGA Tour, will play with McIlroy in Sunday’s final pairing. While he hasn’t won in the States, Fitzpatrick is no stranger to winning. He has five European Tour titles under his belt and he’ll rely on that experience over the final 18.
The door was open for McIlroy and the rest of the field when overnight leaders Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley struggled all afternoon with the fast greens. By day’s end, the four-shot lead they held was gone and they were out of the top five. Bradley’s 75 dropped him to six-under, where he is one of five players at that number. Fleetwood was worse. He finished with 76 and found himself four back of the leader.
McIlroy, who skipped this event for most of his career, has discovered its importance after spending time with Arnold Palmer back in 2015. “I kept getting letters from him that said he hoped I’d play the next year. I finally did. It’s important for everyone to come here and pay tribute to one of the legends of the game.”