Overnight, the Saudi International began to finally resemble a traditional golf tournament. The political issues that engulfed the first-year European Tour event throughout the week quieted some and the folly of Sergio Garcia’s disqualification on Saturday for “serious misconduct” dissipated as 54-hole leaders Dustin Johnson and Haotong Li engaged in an entertaining showdown at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.
There was even a Sunday charge, Tom Lewis trying to put some pressure on the final twosome. But ultimately, Johnson proved too steady, shooting a closing three-under 67 for a 19-under 261 and walking off the winner of a most unusual event.
“It’s definitely very nice,” Johnson, 34, said of the two-stroke victory over Li, who finished with a 69. “I didn’t play my best today but found a way to get it done.”
Give Li credit for being in mix in the first place. Seven days earlier, the 23-year-old Chinese pro had become the first golfer penalised two strokes under the new rule prohibiting a player from having his caddie stand behind him ahead of taking a swing. It was on the final hole of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and the decision immediately ignited a heated debate about the rule altogether.
Li’s caddie was moving out of Li’s line and only seemed to be standing behind the player for a brief instance as he prepared to take his stroke. Li fell from T-3 to T-12, losing roughly $100,000. Even European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley took to Li’s defence, questioning the strict application of the new rule and why it did not seem to account for intent.
But Li pushed on, shooting a third-round 62 that included an amazing four eagles – three on par 4 holes – to move into the final group again.
Johnson, meanwhile, had moved into contention on Friday when he shot a course-record 61, making seven birdies and an eagle to post the lowest score in his professional career. He followed it with a Saturday 65 to sit at 16-under entering Sunday’s play, tied with Li and five strokes clear of Lewis.
In the final round, Li was the aggressor early, making the turn in two-under and taking a one-stroke lead. But then he stumbled, bogeying three of his next five holes. In turn, Johnson played those holes in one-under to separate himself from Li.
There was still Lewis to contend with, however, as the 28-year-old Englishman opened Sunday with five straight birdies and drew within a stroke of the lead over the closing holes. But he couldn’t creep any closer after closing with six straight pars, posting a five-under 65 to finish in third place.
Johnson, a former world No.1 and 19-time winner on the US PGA Tour, leaned on his experience over the closing holes. After hitting a wayward tee shot on the par-3 16th hole into the water left of the hole, he faced a 10-foot bogey putt to keep a one-stroke lead that he calmly rolled in. He didn’t let the wobble bother him, as he birdied the final two holes.
The triumph was a first for Johnson. While victorious at the 2016 US Open and in five World Golf Championships, all recognised by the European Tour, this was Johnson’s first victory in a “regular” Euro Tour event. It also will move him from third to No.2 in the world ranking.
“To get first win of the year and my first European Tour victory, I’m very pleased with it,” Johnson said.