10 March 2019: On an eventful day at Bayhill, Rory McIlroy produced yet another round of spectacular golf to soar up the order with a 66. It took a resolute 67 from a fluent Matthew Fitzpatrick to inch ahead of McIlroy with a one-stroke lead into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Anirban Lahiri endured a miserable finish, bleeding six strokes over five holes in making an 80. The greens were racing on a warm afternoon that made golf remarkably hard. At 7-over 223, Anirban slipped to the bottom of the leaderboard.
Kevin Kisner, Matt Wallace, and Aaron Baddeley are all at 7-under in T3. Fitzpatrick is out in front at nine under with McIlroy hot on his heels at 8-under 208. Overnight leaders Keegan Bradley and Tommy Fleetwood posted 75 and 76 respectively, underlining the tough conditions.
In fact, Fitzpatrick’s 207 is the highest score to lead after 54 holes at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, since the 210 by Ben Crenshaw proved sufficient in 1993.
On Friday, Anirban had begun his day with an out of bounds tee shot that resulted in a double bogey. He made another inauspicious beginning on Saturday when he worked from bunker to bunker before settling for a two-putt bogey.
Anirban got wet at the par-4 third hole, eventually reaching the green in four. He needed two putts from there as he absorbed a double bogey. A birdie at the par-5 sixth offered a brief respite before he sank another bogey at the eighth hole. It took him 39 strokes to navigate the forward nine.
A well-directed approach at the par-4 13th helped Anirban set up his second birdie of the day. But then he walked straight into complete disarray, taking some heavy punches from the course.
Anirban played some wayward golf on the par-3 14th, flailing right and left, before he chipped on to the green with his third shot. A three-putt double bogey at the 15th, after missing from just four feet, added to his misery.
He found the rough to the left of the fairway on the 17th hole before sailing his approach shot into the greenside bunker. Another double bogey dented his card even further. A bogey at the 18th where he missed par from about 7 feet put an end to a miserable day.
Last year, McIlroy birdied eight of his last thirteen holes to win the event. At the end of the second round though, McIlroy was languishing down the order in 31st spot. Starting the day seven strokes back, McIlroy wasted no time making a majestic move. He sank four birdies in his first six holes to announce in intentions in grand style.
He signed off with three birdies over the final four holes to sound the bugle ahead of another promising Sunday on the PGA TOUR.
“Just what I needed,” McIlroy said of his round.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 10, 2019
“I was more in control of my golf ball today, I hit more fairways, and because of that I gave myself more birdie chances and I converted a few of them. So I did everything I needed to do today to get myself back in the golf tournament and excited to have another chance tomorrow.”
Fitzpatrick proved skillful at adapting to the conditions. He realised that the greens were playing like glass soon as he failed to find where his ball landed, when he flew in 115 yards with a sand wedge. As he picked up the ball, 10 feet from the flag, Fitzpatrick tried in vain to check where he landed on the green.
“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. You can still hit to 30 feet, 40 feet and just have a perfectly great putt, just because they’re so good.”
As the final group tees off on Sunday, McIlroy will be playing in one for the third time in five starts this year. But he is yet to defend a title even after he has 22 of those to his name. Sunday at Bay Hill might just be the perfect place to set that record straight.