(Reuters) - Matthew Fitzpatrick played bogey-free golf as he eased past Rory McIlroy for a one-stroke lead over the Northern Irishman after the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida on Saturday.
Back-to-back birdies at the 15th and 16th holes enabled the Englishman to overtake McIlroy and saved pars at his final two holes for a five-under-par 67 to head into Sunday’s final round at nine-under 207.
“It’s great,” the 24-year-old said of the prospect of playing in the final group with McIlroy on Sunday.
“He’s defending champion, he’s got a ton of fans over here. I’ve become good friends with him, [I] moved down to Jupiter [Florida] for the winter months and I’ve spent a good bit of time with him there. It will be a fun day.”
A victory would be a first on the PGA tour for Fitzpatrick, who has five wins on the European circuit.
Defending champion McIlroy shot a 66 to surge up the leaderboard at Bay Hill.
The former world number one, strong off the tee, birdied four of his first six holes and three of his final four as he continued solid play for the season.
McIlroy’s round could have been even stronger had he not twice three-putted at par-five holes, including at the 12th where his putting cost him a chance of an eagle.
“Overall I played a really good round of golf, exactly what I needed to do,” McIlroy told PGA Tour Radio.
“I think hitting it on the fairway is key. If you hit it on the fairway at least you can get some spin on your ball and get it somewhat close to these holes.
“It’s firm, it’s fast and there’s a little bit of wind and they have tucked the pins away so it’s tough to get close.
“It’s sort of like a game of chess out there. You have to stay patient and pick your spots.”
Overall, McIlroy said he was pleased with his play in the new season.
“I’ve been trending in the right direction,” he said. “I am coming off four top-fives to start the year.”
Australian Aaron Baddeley (69), Englishman Matt Wallace (69) and American Kevin Kisner (70) shared third at seven-under.
Third round co-leaders Tommy Fleetwood (76) and Keegan Bradley (75) stumbled out of contention after beginning the day with a four-stroke advantage.
The troubles also continued for world number two Justin Rose, whose 77 left him 12 strokes off the lead.
Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, editing by Nick Mulvenney