HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – When the love affair began, it wasn’t the golf. “It was the tennis,” said Russell Fitzpatrick. “We put Matty in tennis lessons when we came here.”
Clay, of course. Proper tennis for a proper young British lad from Sheffield whose parents, Russell and Sue, would bring their two boys to the Sea Pines Resort, tucked quietly into the far end of this island. On the first holiday, in 2000, Matt Fitzpatrick was six and the family vote was unanimous for return visits “so we came countless times,” said Russell.
“Green shoes, green clothes, (green) everything,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, when asked about the boyhood joy of the clay kicking up during his games and lessons. A wonderful memory, the tennis, but, no, never did the game become his go-to sport.
“(It was) not as good as my golf game,” laughed Fitzpatrick, whose passion for this idyllic vacation spot has been going on for more than 20 years now. That he’s in position to add yet another special memory is a credit to the bogey-free, 8-under 63 he shot in Saturday’s third round at Harbour Town Golf Links to seize a one-stroke lead in the RBC Heritage.
“Aside from Augusta,” said Fitzpatrick, who is now at 14-under 199, “it’s my favorite golf course.”
Ah, but where the flavor starts to overflow is when you consider that his playing competitors in Sunday’s final round – Patrick Cantlay (66 – 200) and Jordan Spieth (66 – 201) – also have a special kinship with these twisting and turning 18 holes that take you in different directions between endless rows of pine trees before you get dropped out for wind-swept views of Calibogue Sound (and the famed Harbour Town Lighthouse) for Nos. 16, 17, and 18.
Whereas Fitzpatrick’s love for Hilton Head Island and Harbour Town are rooted in boyhood visits, Cantlay and Spieth can point to positive occupational pursuits. Just last year, Cantlay lost in a memorable playoff to Spieth as each of them continued to play beautifully here.
Cantlay has two third-place finishes and a T-7 to go with last year’s runner-up.
As for Spieth, on three other occasions he’s finished T-12 or better, so clearly he, like his competitors in Sunday’s final pairing, feels comfortable at this beguiling Pete Dye design.
Beyond the locale, however, Spieth felt he had met what is always the goal before you tee it up on Thursday. “Anytime you have a chance on a Sunday, you’ve accomplished your goal for the week,” he said. “Then it just becomes ‘go out there and get it done’ and try to separate yourself.”
Now separation might not be an easy task come Sunday as the leaderboard offers various other names who can grab your attention. Look no further than a name lodged in a five-way tie for fourth at 11-under 202: Scottie Scheffler (69).
He had started the day in the final pairing, three behind his playing competitor, Jimmy Walker, and he ended it 69 strokes later three behind Fitzpatrick. You might translate that as treading water, but when you’ve got a chance to regain the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, and you continue to hit fairways and greens as Scheffler does, you can appreciate his upbeat mindset.
“I didn’t shoot myself out of it,” said Scheffler, who could leapfrog Jon Rahm with a win. “Going into tomorrow, I feel pretty good.”
Certainly, having four highly-ranked names (Scheffler is No. 2, while Cantlay, Spieth and Fitzpatrick are 4, 15, and 16, respectively) in contention envelopes Sunday’s final round in great flavor. But amid a sprinkling of names who are also at 11-under and in search of their first PGA TOUR win (Taylor Moore, Mark Hubbard, and Tommy Fleetwood) there is the feel-good story of this tournament – Walker.
He began the day at 12-under, leading by three, and now sits three behind Fitzpatrick thanks to a screeching halt to a stretch of 25 bogey-free holes. He bogeyed Nos. 11, 14 and 15 coming home, shot 1-over 72, but not all is lost in his fight to return to PGA TOUR prominence.
The 44-year-old had decided to walk away from the game until he had a chance to take advantage of being top 50 in lifetime earnings. The exemptions have put him back among younger colleagues, many of whom sing the praises of the quiet Texan.
After opening 65-65, the praise became louder from the likes of Speith and Rickie Fowler, among others.
“Well, that’s good,” said Walker. “I’ve tried to live a good life, be a good dude, so that’s great. I appreciate that.”
Though he fell from the top spot and must rally past a heady list of elite names, Walker embraces the challenge.
Certainly, it will take an offensive show to get the “Heritage Plaid” jacket that will go to the winner. And the names at the very top of the list know how to take it low around Harbour Town.
The 5-unders that they posted Saturday were the fifth and fourth times that Cantlay and Spieth, respectively, have gone for 66 or better at Harbour Town. Last year, Spieth closed with 66 to get into a tie with Cantlay.
As for Fitzpatrick, his 63 was the lowest he’s shot around this course, but he, too, has gone for 66 or better on four occasions.
Of course, Russell Fitzpatrick, who not surprisingly is here with Sue, remembers a round in 2014 that made him think that his son Matt might just be able to make a go of this pro golf business. In the RBC Heritage as an amateur that April, “Matt shot 71, 18 straight pars in the fourth round,” said Russell Fitzpatrick. “Not bad.”
Not bad? It was bloody well done. No wonder the kid loves the place.
Thing is, so do many others.