It was all kicking off in the desert. Patrick Reed ran up a 10 that hurt. Feeling much happier was Haotong Li, who carded four eagles to share the lead with Dustin Johnson. But all this was overshadowed by Sergio Garcia as the Spaniard was sensationally disqualified in the inaugural Saudi International.
Apparently, the Ryder Cup player damaged no fewer than five greens in the third round as frustration spilled over. Such was the mess he left that players in the next four groups – and maybe even more – called in on-course European Tour officials to complain.
Garcia was disqualified under Rule 1.2a, which allows for that action to be taken if a player has committed serious misconduct. The decision was made after he had been quizzed following his round by European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley.
The 2017 Masters champion said in a statement: “I respect the decision of my disqualification. In frustration, I damaged a couple of greens, for which I apologise, and I have informed my fellow players it will never happen again.”
Garcia, who only made the cut by two shots after rounds of 69 and 70 before adding a 71, had been heard complaining about the greens earlier in the week. He had also slammed his club into the base of a bunker on Friday after taking two shots to get out of it.
Earlier in the week he had spoken sensibly about how players should know the Rules of Golf or run the risk of learning the hard way, as he did when losing a tournament in Australia early in his professional career after taking a wrong drop.
It had seemed that getting married and becoming a father had helped Garcia get rid of his reputation for being a bit of a hothead at times, but his actions showed no respect to his fellow players. It led to calls on social media for him to face a suspension.
Reed, the Masters champion, dumped three balls in the water at the 18th at Royal Greens. The resultant quintuple-bogey left him signing for a 72 to sit miles back. “I did the hard part at the last with my drive – but then hell froze over,” he said. It came in his first outing as the European Tour’s newest honorary member. “It’s not the first time I’ve taken a 10 and probably won’t be the last time,” he added.
Johnson, who had started the day with a three-shot lead following his sublime 61 on Friday, was four in front at one point after a burst of four straight birdies around the turn. Li, having already made eagles at the first and tenth, finished with two more to move alongside the world No.3 on 16-under heading into the final circuit.
“I probably played just as well as I did yesterday, giving myself a lot of opportunities but just holed a few more yesterday than I did today,” said Johnson after signing for 67.
That Li has a chance of winning shows the young Chinese player is made of stern stuff. Last Sunday he lost around £80,000 as he dropped from joint third to 12th after a two-shot penalty for an alleged breach of the new rules on the 72nd hole in the Dubai Desert Classic. He has bounced back brilliantly, as illustrated by a third-round 62 here and that rare feat of making so many eagles in one round. “I think it’s very, very lucky today,” he said.
Playing with world No.5 Bryson DeChambeau, Scottish rookie Liam Johnston carded a level-par 70 – two shots more than the American – to sit joint 27th on four under. “I didn’t hit it my best today,” said the 25-year-old from Dumfries. “But my short game was really good and it helped me salvage level par in the wind. I’m pretty pleased how I fought.”
Bob MacIntyre, the only other Scot to make it to the weekend in the European Tour’s newest event, sits just outside the top 50 after a 71 left him on level par. “I played great today,” said the 22-year-old from Oban. “In fact, that is as good as I’ve played since Hong Kong [in the first event of the season back in November]. I feel I putted good; I just could not get it in the hole. I just need to keep my chin up.”