Dustin Johnson continued his love affair with Royal Greens Golf and Country Club as he opened up a two-shot lead heading into the final round of the 2021 Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers.
The World Number One won the inaugural staging of this event in 2019 before finishing second 12 months ago, and a birdie-birdie finish saw him sign for a third-round 66 and move to 13 under after 54 holes in 2021.
Frenchman Victor Perez led a strong chasing pack, with Race to Dubai Rankings presented by Rolex leader Tyrrell Hatton, his fellow Englishman Andy Sullivan, American Tony Finau and Dane Søren Kjeldsen at ten under.
Major Champions Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer were then four shots off the lead alongside 36 hole leader Ryan Fox, South African George Coetzee, Scot Calum Hill, England’s David Horsey, and Norwegian Viktor Hovland.
Johnson was making serene progress and had gone 53 holes without a dropped shot at this event over the past two seasons as he opened up a two-shot lead stood on the 13th tee.
A double-bogey after finding the water dropped him back into a share but his big finish put him on course to claim a ninth European Tour title, and second outside of the Major Championships and World Golf Championships.
“It was a good finish,” he said. “I felt like I played really well all day, other than 13, but I didn’t think I hit that bad a shot. I pushed it a hair right of the flag but just came up well short of where I thought it would and ended up making six there.
“Other than that, I drove it well and hit a lot of really good iron shots in there to give myself a lot of good chances at birdie. Didn’t hole a whole lot of putts but finishing nicely definitely helped the day out.
“It’s always good to win no matter when it is…it’s a really good field. I’d definitely be very pleased. It’s a pretty big golf tournament and it will definitely give me a lot of confidence for the rest of the year.”
Fox hit the front on his own with a birdie from six feet at the first but he gave the shot straight back after a poor second and found himself alongside Johnson, who had made a gain of his own on the first from eight feet.
The Masters Tournament Champion hit a poor second on the par-five fourth but got up and down in spectacular style for a birdie – an achievement matched by Fox who two putted for his gain.
The Kiwi failed to get up and down from the sand on the eighth and when Johnson holed from eight feet for a two-shot lead, the American was looking ominous.
A 15 footer on the tenth moved Johnson to 13 under but when he found water on the 13th and made a double bogey for his first dropped shots of the week, his lead was gone and a host of players had been brought back into contention.
One of those was Perez and he was the man who set the target at 11 under in the clubhouse with a bogey-free 66.
The 28-year-old had birdied the third, made a two-putt gain on the fourth, holed from 20 feet on the seventh and put his approach to ten feet on the 17th to get to the top of the leaderboard.
Johnson had missed a few good birdie chances inside 12 feet but after hitting a drive right up to the front of the 17th green, he chipped to six feet and holed to move back ahead.
A stunning nine-iron from 190 yards then left him 11 feet for a closing eagle but he had to settle for a two-putt birdie and a two-shot lead.
Perez will head out in the final group alongside Johnson on Sunday and the 2019 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship winner is relishing going up against the highest-ranked golfer on the planet.
“I think that’s as good as it gets,” he said. “I’ll be very excited for the challenge. I think this is all you strive for.
“I think obviously I will need to make some putts tomorrow. Somebody is going to have to put in a low one to win and if it’s going to be windy, it’s going to be a grind coming down the stretch for sure.”
Hatton made a single bogey on the 13th to go with gains on the fourth, seventh, tenth, 14th and last in his 66, while Sullivan was level par through 14 holes but picked up shots on the 15th and 17th.
Kjeldsen carded a 65 with birdies on the first, second, fourth, tenth, 13th and last, with a single dropped shot on the 12th, and Finau also dropped one shot on the 15th, adding gains on the fourth, fifth, ninth and last in a 67.
Garcia’s 64 was the lowest round of the day as the Spaniard posted seven birdies, while Horsey briefly held a share of the lead after a 62 foot putt on the sixth made it a hat-trick of gains, but he fell back to post a 69.
European Tour Release, Feb 06, 2021