KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY – World No 1 Dustin Johnson powered his way to a two-shot lead after finishing with back-to-back birdies in the third round of the Saudi International on Saturday.
The 36-year-old American, who won the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2019 and was runner-up last year, started the round one shot behind the leaders, but a four-under par 66 propelled him to the outright lead at 13-under par 197.
France's Victor Perez moved to second place at 11-under, matching Johnson's 66.
English duo Tyrrell Hatton (also 66) and Andy Sullivan (68) were joined by American Tony Finau (67) and Dane Soren Kjeldsen (65) in a tie for third one shot further adrift.
The cushion at the top could have been even more comfortable for Johnson.
He slightly pushed his 8-iron second shot on the tough par-4 13th hole and it rolled into the water after hitting the bank and ended up making a double bogey, his only mistake in the tournament so far.
He then smashed an exquisite 9-iron to 11 feet after a huge drive on the par-5 18th, but agonisingly missed the eagle putt.
“I played well and thought I swung well except for that mistake on the 13th hole. It wasn’t much of a mistake really, but it came up way short.
“Apart from that, I gave myself many chances on a golf course that I really like,” said Johnson, the reigning Masters champion.
The last time a World No1 won a regular European Tour event was when Rory McIlroy triumphed at the 2015 Dubai Desert Classic.
“As of right now, I feel like I’m playing very solid. I’m seeing a lot of the same things each and every week with my game. I’m pleased with where it’s at and where it is going,” added Johnson.
“A win any time of the year is great, but especially at the start of the season. It will be good to win here again as this is a very big tournament. I just hope I can make a few putts out there tomorrow.”
Perez, who opened with back-to-back rounds of 65 last year before fading away to tied 38th place with a terrible weekend, handled the conditions on the back nine much better than some of the leading rivals to Johnson, most of whom faded away after appearing to challenge him.
The 28-year-old said he was excited to be playing with the current top golfer in the world.
“I think that’s as good as it gets,” said the world No35. “I will be very excited for the challenge. I think this is all you strive for.
“Obviously, I will need to make some putts tomorrow (Sunday). I don’t know what the weather is going to be like. But even if it’s good, somebody is going to have put a low one to win.”
Big-hitting American Bryson DeChambeau, the reigning US Open champion, needed an eagle on the final hole for a two-under par 68 round that took him to seven-under par, six shots behind Johnson.