Beneath the floor of the media centre at Harbour Town Golf Links lies a handful of green clay tennis courts. Not the same quality of orange clay courts that French Open hero Rafael Nadal would be satisfied with. But good enough for a 6-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick back in 2001.

The Fitzpatrick family began coming across the Atlantic to Hilton Head each April, some 22 years ago. Tennis was one of the activities Fitzpatrick and his parents, Russell and Sue, as well as his brother, Alex, would take part in when they weren’t playing golf on their annual spring vacation from Sheffield, England.

“It was not as good as my golf game was at the time, but I enjoyed it,” Fitzpatrick recounted on Saturday after a PGA Tour career-best 63 at the RBC Heritage put him at 14 under par through three rounds, one shot ahead of Patrick Cantlay (66).

His ability didn’t matter. Fitzpatrick fully committed to those clay-court sessions, much like his methodical approach to golf.

“[I wore] green shoes, green clothes, everything,” Fitzpatrick said of the efforts to avoid green stains.

Fitzpatrick’s 22-year love affair with Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus’ famed Harbour Town course, and the tournament it’s hosted for 54 years, began.

“This is one high on my list that I’ve always wanted to win,” Fitzpatrick, now 28 and the reigning U.S. Open champion, said after his round. “Coming here as a kid, to the tournament, this place to means a lot to me. I loved it. Aside from Augusta it’s my favorite golf course. I really enjoy the design and the test.”

Matt Fitzpatrick plays a shot from a bunker on the 15th hole in the third round of the RBC Heritage. Kevin C. Cox

He enjoys the logo, too. Fitzpatrick uses a driver headcover from Harbour Town’s pro shop, emblazoned with the 18th hole’s lighthouse logo on it, each year at the tournament.

Fitzpatrick’s affinity for the course showed on Saturday’s third round. In beautiful, sunny conditions, he kick-started his round by holing out his 149-yard approach for eagle from a fairway bunker at the par-4 third.

“Three under through three,” Fitzpatrick said with a grin, having birdied the par-5 second on Saturday. The Yorkshireman was clutch for the remainder of the round. Birdies at the par-5 fifth, as well as Nos. 7 and 8, gave him a front nine of 30. Two more birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 catapulted him to eight under the card. At the difficult par-3 17th, Fitzpatrick steered away from the stunning but penal low country left of the hole and bailed out to the right greenside bunker.

“It was just dead there; there was no shot and I played away from the flag,” Fitzpatrick said of pitching out sideways to the fringe. “I gave myself the best chance possible managed to take it.”

That sand save and a regulation par on the iconic par-4 18th gave Fitzpatrick a bogey-free round. “I hate [bogeys],” he said.

The 63 beat Fitzpatrick’s career-best PGA Tour round by one—the 64 he shot at the Tour Championship last year. The cream continued to rise on day three of the $20 million designated event. Cantlay’s 66 vaulted him to second at 13 under, while defending champion Jordan Spieth (66) is another shot back at 12 under. Tommy Fleetwood, Scottie Scheffler (11 under), Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Xander Schauffele (10 under) are just some of the big names within four shots of Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick, an eight-time DP World Tour winner and two-time Ryder Cupper, has a golden opportunity for his first non-major PGA Tour victory. It also gives him his first 54-hole lead at the Heritage, where his best result since his event debut, in 2016, is a T-4 in 2021. That year, he began the final day eight shots behind runaway winner Stewart Cink.

“I’ve not had the best results around here,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve had a couple good runs and a couple poor ones. This is the best position I’ve been in in this tournament. To give myself a chance tomorrow, I’m excited to give that a go.”

Should he be successful in converting his lead, Fitzpatrick will have to make his way back Sunday night to the media centre and those green clay tennis courts. With any hope, he’ll be wearing the winner’s plaid jacket, too.