Jason Daniels looks to the top five and top 10 markets with Dustin Johnson expected to complete victory in the Saudi International.
After the inaugural two runnings of the Saudi International, feelings were mixed as to the skillset required to challenge for the title.
Over the three days thus far we have seen all manner of conditions - rain and wind for periods and a third round basked in glorious sunshine until the wind started to take effect late on. All through this the undeniable factor has been the importance of quality ball-striking: approach play and greens-in-regulation are hugely dominant.
The leaderboard is accordingly of very high quality but a shadow is cast by the best player in the world, Dustin Johnson, who sits atop it and is positioned to win this for a second time in three attempts.
There is little to say other than if he wants to win this he probably will unless someone does something out of the ordinary on Sunday. The Masters winner missed stacks of chances in round one, took them in round two, and a birdie-birdie finish to round three saw him re-establish a clear lead he gave away with his sole mistake at the difficult 13th as cross-winds pushed an approach into the water.
Leading the greens-in-regulation stats and doing his damage from tee-to-green, this is now his to lose. A measure of his quality came at the first of the two par-fives when put off by a photographer for his approach. No worry, 118-yard pitch and putt to get to 11-under. He missed some shorties, messed up the 13th from the fairway and looked a trifle shell-shocked but like the very best, demonstrated his class with an ideal finish - although not without drama as his tee shot down the last hung on just short of the water.
Seven wins from his last 10 overnight leads include the Masters, he won from the front (tied) here in 2019, and odds of 4/6 on the book are pretty generous. Rather like last week, the column isn't here to put up odds-on win pokes, but as with Paul Casey in Dubai, the current exchange prices (1.8) make considerable appeal.
In a daunting final group he may be but still very interesting is Victor Perez, a player I find hard to get right but of massive potential and owner of the only bogey-free round on Saturday.
Ranking in the top-five overall through the first couple of rounds, he is striking the ball as well as he did at Wentworth and when runner-up at Abu Dhabi, a course that correlates extremely well here. Surrounded by the top of the world, he looks pretty fearless and closed with a 63 in the latter event to show he can go low when it counts.
However the Frenchman couldn't cope with leading at halfway last year and if the winds get up late as they did on that occasion, he may struggle. It may be churlish to bring up his record against the leader but while they have never faced each other head-to-head, he is trailing 24-9 in finishing positions, and the prospect of chasing down DJ while Ryder Cup points are on the line is a mammoth one.
Tony Finau is in the mix again along with Viktor Hovland, the pair having challenged Patrick Reed last week, and both will hope to give Johnson something to think about along with the world-class and red-hot Tyrrell Hatton. Still, it will be a surprise if anyone other than the leader wins and even with three places on offer, giving away the win part to land some place money makes little appeal.
As such it may pay to explore the top-five and top 10 markets and I'll start with SERGIO GARCIA, who caught the eye last week in Dubai, letting himself down with a couple of duffed chips and possibly chasing the win too hard.
Winner of the Sanderson Farms in October, on a course with some tricky greens, he is again challenging from off the pace, finishing Saturday's round with a birdie and back-nine 32. At nine-under, he looked to be seeking a position just on the fringes of the top 10 but as conditions got tougher, he finds himself in tied-seventh, just four off the pace
A previous winner of the Desert Classic and with a host of top-10s in the sand including a closing sixth place last year (closing round 66), the more wind the better and he was looking a wager before DJ hit the accelerator. He's 33/1 to reel in DJ and 12/1 in the 'without' market, but the play is probably a top-five finish at 5/2.
Last year's final day saw one round of 64, but in calmer conditions a year earlier that score was bettered by three 63s and a 62 so there is potential for someone to come from way back to nab a place on the front page early on and watch the leaders play a tad more carefully. Despite the quality up front, chasing the trophy can do funny things to a game - witness Robert Macintyre chasing Paul Casey last week - so take a chance with a player that deserves a '1' by his name.
LAURIE CANTER went close on a number of occasions during a breakthrough 2020 and he can add to a strong run of Middle East form with another valuable finish.
Long off the tee and consistently top-15 for all the tee-to-green and approach stats, being away from the top is probably the best thing for him given his frailties with the putter when in contention, but after three impressive back-nines this week is worth a look to rack up his sixth top-10 finish in his last 12 outings.
The 31-year-old was a zero factor on the European Tour until last season but this is a completely different player to that of just a couple of seasons ago and his sustained run of quality golf marks him down as a player to respect.
Canter's only real issue has been the double-bogey during his second round and with his length likely to help set up chances early on at the first and fourth, and late at the 17th and 18th, he looks in a nice position to match or better a first-round 66 and sneak into the frame.
Desperate to be at the Ryder Cup, IAN POULTER was smarting about his play today. Disappointed with being just five-under through 11 he was almost beyond fury in his interview, saying he has rarely hit it better. Renowned for using his passion to raise his game, he has a target, as do we - 9/2 for a top-10.
Poulter has let himself down on the back-nine over the last two days, but I fancy him to put that right and end this run of quality European Tour events on a high before heading back to the USA. Chances are Johnson is the one who takes the trophy with him, but his potential Ryder Cup foe can board the plane with a spring in his step, too.
Posted at 1650 GMT on 06/02/21
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