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Northwestern fever follows Matthew Fitzpatrick to Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Matthew Fitzpatrick is a Northwestern University freak. Forget that the Englishman attended classes there for only one semester. He bleeds the proverbial purple -- so much that his golf bag is a paean to the place, with the school's name in block letters down each side and its logo on the main panel, just under his name.

This is an exciting time for Northwestern fans -- and it has nothing to do with Fitzpatrick's torrid start that has him in contention entering the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

No, it's the men's basketball team that has Wildcat Nation in a frenzy. After reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, the team squeaked out an opening-round victory over Vanderbilt on Thursday, one that has alums and other supporters more enthusiastic than any time since their football team's 1996 Rose Bowl bid.

As a result, Fitzpatrick might have been the only person with a connection to the school who didn't watch the game. But he had a good excuse -- he was busy posting an opening-round 5-under 67 at the exact same time.

"I don't really know much about basketball," he said after a second-round 69 on Friday that left him two strokes shy of leader Charley Hoffman. "It's not really a big sport in the UK, so, I just know how big it is from one friend on the team and then some of my friends that do go there."

He barely looks old enough to shave -- playing partner Harold Varner III said, "He looks like he's 12, but he plays like a grown man" -- yet it's been four years since Fitzpatrick won the prestigious U.S. Amateur Championship, and then enrolled in Northwestern for that one semester before turning pro.

In the time since, he's won three European Tour titles, finished T-7 at last year's Masters, competed for the European Ryder Cup team and climbed to his current ranking of 30th in the world -- all before his 23rd birthday.

Despite not yet owning status on the PGA Tour, he fits the mold of three recent champions. Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm have accounted for five wins this season, each of them under 25. With a strong weekend, Fitzpatrick could be yet another peach-fuzz prodigy living up to his potential before our eyes.

And if people underestimate him because of his appearance, well, that's just fine by him.

"I'm sure probably people think I'm the amateur out there or the 15-year-old that's got in or something," he said with a smile. "But I don't really mind that; I think it's quite funny. I would rather that than people think, 'Oh, he's going to win every week.' I can't really imagine the sort of pressure that Rory [McIlroy] and Jason Day and those guys have. It's probably tough to keep up with."

Fitzpatrick told a story of not being allowed into the player locker room last year at Doral -- until Day walked by and convinced the security worker that he was indeed a competitor.

The golf ball isn't as discerning, though, nor is the scorecard. His peers also understand just how much ability he possesses.

"He's a quiet kid and he gets his business done and he does it very efficiently and very well," explained McIlroy, a teammate on last year's Ryder Cup squad. "He's a great talent. ... It's not a surprise to me to see him up there at the top of this leaderboard."

This is an exciting time for Northwestern fans. One more victory, and the school will have made the leap from never reaching the NCAA tournament to being a Sweet 16 team.

If it doesn't happen, though, if the Wildcats get knocked off by No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday, at least school supporters can apply those rooting interests to the guy who spent only one semester there but still bleeds that proverbial purple.