With the wind flipping as he made the turn Saturday afternoon at Marco Simone Golf Club, Matthew Fitzpatrick figured he’d have a tough time gaining ground on the leaders.
“The golf course just completely changed,” Fitzpatrick explained. “It was a wind we had not played in all week. To me, I just felt like if I could just hang on and just avoid bogeys, I would put myself in good position.”
He did more than that.
Fitzpatrick went bogey-free on his final nine while adding three birdies, and his third-round, 2-under 69 gave him a one-shot lead entering Sunday’s final round of the Italian Open.
The 28-year-old Englishman, who is in great position to make his third European Ryder Cup team next year (Marco Simone will host the biennial matches), has cooled a bit since winning the U.S. Open in June at The Country Club. He tied for 16th at East Lake before heading to the DP World Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA, and sharing 42nd.
Fitzpatrick will have to hold off a much hotter Ryder Cup teammate on Sunday in Rome. Rory McIlroy entered his Italian Open debut on the back of eight top-10s, including two wins, in 11 worldwide starts dating to his Masters runner-up. He came up one shot shy of winner Shane Lowry last Sunday at Wentworth.
That momentum continued this week as McIlroy grabbed the 36-hole lead with a 67-66 start, but his putter cooled off Saturday as McIlroy was befuddled by the gusty conditions.
He offset three birdies with three bogeys, sinking a 5-footer for birdie at the last to shoot 71 and earn a spot in Sunday’s final threesome with Fitzpatrick and Aaron Rai, who fired a third-round 65 and is tied with McIlroy in second at 9 under.
“Felt like I played OK,” said McIlroy, who took 30 putts on Saturday, including three from 8 feet at the par-5 12th, which McIlroy bogeyed. “You know, every birdie I made, I followed it with a bogey, so that was not good. But just when the wind got up there when we turned, I struggled with the putter all day, but I think especially when the wind got up, I struggled just to sort of commit to reads: Do I play the wind? Do I not play the wind? I holed a couple of nice ones coming in (a 13-footer for par at No. 15 stood out) but missed a lot of opportunities there at sort of the start of the middle of the round.
“Sort of thankfully I'm still in it. Still only one shot back. In the final group tomorrow, so that was a big putt on 18 to hole so I can keep an eye on Fitz and what he's doing.”
Presidents Cup snub Lucas Herbert shares fourth with Victor Perez and Kurt Kitayama at 8 under while Bob MacIntyre and Oliver Bekker are another shot back in a tie for seventh.
With similar conditions expected for Sunday, it’s likely even someone like Tyrrell Hatton at 6 under has a chance to make an early run and hope Fitzpatrick and Co. give a few back coming in.
If you ask McIlroy, though, it’s not likely Fitzpatrick will provide much of an opening.
“I know it will be a tough day,” McIlroy said. “Fitz is very solid. These are the sort of conditions that he relishes. He's going to be tough to beat.”