Dustin Johnson held his nerve in a dramatic duel in the sun to hold unto the inaugural Saudi International, the first-ever European Tour event held in Saudi Arabia.
Having shot rounds of 68, 61 and 65 to sit 16 under par going into the title showdown with co-leader Haotong Li of China, the American shot a final round of 67 to seal a two-stroke victory at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City.
“you can win anytime in a professional golf tournament, no matter where it is in the world, it’s a big win. I’m honored to be the champion,” said Johnson, who won $583,330 to add to a reported $1m appearance fee. “Haotong was one ahead on the back nine, but I knew I was playing well enough to make up some strokes and I didn’t let it trouble me. I just played my game and kept on trying to make birdies. It’s been a great week for me coming here to Saudi Arabia for the first time.”
Li, a two-time European Tour winner, led briefly after a birdie on the ninth hole put him one stroke in front. Johnson then struck back-to-back birdies on holes 11 and 12 to move back in front. Li’s challenge seemed to have ended after consecutive bogeys on holes 13 and 14, but Johnson bogey on the 16th ensured the pair’s titanic tussle would go the distance.
“I’m very excited to finish solo second,” said Li, who ended the tournament at 17 under par. “It was a good battle, on the front nine when I was playing really well. The back nine I was just a little bit off, but I learned a lot and most importantly those last few holes were good for me. I think DJ deserved to win this event.”
With Li and Johnson going head-to-head, Tom Lewis thrust himself into contention with five straight birdies to open his round. The Englishman’s challenge faded on the back nine, however, and he finished third overall at 16 under par. South Korea’s Lee Min Woo, who finished a stroke further back after his second consecutive seven-under-par 63. A four-under-par final round made Ian Poulter the next best-placed Briton in sixth, while Bradley Dredge and Ross Fisher were in a share of 13th.
The tournament itself was mired in controversy, as some golfers, including Paul Casey, stayed away in protest against the Saudi regime’s record on human rights, while four of the world’s top five golfers, including world best Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka, took part on the basis of hefty appearance fees.
Rose brushed off claims that by playing in the event he was condoning the regime. “I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” he said on the eve of the tournament. “There are other reasons to go play it. It’s a good field, there’s going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for, and gets one of my European Tour events out of the way very early, and by all accounts it’s a good golf course.”
DUSTIN JOHNSON’S WINNING BAG
Driver: TaylorMade M6 (10.5°)
Fairway Wood: TaylorMade M5 (15°)
Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P730 DJ Proto (4-PW)
Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind Hi-Toe (54°, 60° and 64°)
Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Black
Ball: TaylorMade TP5x