Dustin Johnson’s victory in the inaugural $3.5 million Saudi International was just what tournament organizers wanted after a week shrouded in controversy.
Johnson won his first European Tour tournament by three shots over China’s Haotong Li. The world No. 3 returned a 3-under-par 67 in the final round to go with scores of 68-61-65 for a 19-under 261 total.
The 34-year-old added the $583,000 first-place check to an estimated seven-figure appearance fee for playing in Saudi Arabia. A blue-chip winner was just what tournament organizers needed considering the controversy surrounding the European Tour’s decision to stage the event following the House of Saud’s alleged murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Turkish consulate last year.
The European Tour and tournament promoters then had to endure Sergio Garcia’s dramatic third-round disqualification for damaging five putting greens. No wonder the man in charge of the tournament was gushing in his praise afterwards.
“We were always confident the Saudi International powered by SBIA would set a new marker for world-class sporting events in Saudi Arabia – and so it has proved,” said Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation, the tournament organizer.
“The future of the game in Saudi has never been so bright. Our congratulations to Dustin Johnson on such a masterful performance. We are honoured to have such a worthy champion, who has helped us create history and showcase a modern Saudi to the world.”
Johnson should return to defend his title. Given the way he played this year, he should be a good bet to repeat, even if Li gave him a pretty decent fight.
“It’s a definitely very nice to get the first win of the year and my first European Tour victory,” Johnson said. “I’m very pleased with it, especially since we had a great field here this week.
“Any time you can win a professional golf tournament, no matter where it is in the world, it’s a big win. I’m honored to be the champion, and I’m very pleased with the win.”
Johnson said he “absolutely” would return to the tournament.
“I think the event went off fantastically, and I enjoyed the golf course. Obviously, I played it very well. It’s a beautiful course and I really like it. I really enjoyed my week this week, and I hope to be back next year.”
Li did well to bounce back from a controversial two-shot penalty in the final round of the previous week’s Dubai Desert Classic that cost him $98,000 and valuable world ranking points. The 23-year-old Chinese player entered the final round tied with Johnson on 16 under.
Li seemed on course for his third European Tour victory when he stood on the 10th tee one shot ahead of Johnson. Bogeys at the 10th, 13th and 14th holes cost him dearly.
“It was a very good match, especially the front nine when I was playing really good,” said Li, who made $388,880. “The back nine, I was just a little bit off. It wasn’t my best over there today again. But I learn a lot and especially that last few holes was good for me. I think he deserved to win this event.
“I’m very happy with the week. When I had four holes left, I looked at leaderboard. I had dropped to third place and so I’m very happy to finish solo second.”
England’s Tom Lewis took solo third to continue his remarkable comeback. He finished 16 under to earn $219,000. Lewis lost his card in 2017 but regained it by winning last year’s Portugal Masters. Saudi Arabia was his fifth top 10 in his last eight starts.