Bryson DeChambeau gave himself a great opportunity to win his first title outside the United States by moving into pole position after the penultimate day of the Dubai Desert Classic on Saturday, while Ernie Els stayed in contention.
American DeChambeau, the highest ranked player in the field at world number five, overcame a mid-round hiccup of two consecutive bogeys to shoot a four-under-par 68 and finish on 16-under par at Emirates Golf Club.
That gave him a one-shot advantage over defending champion Li Haotong, who moved to 15-under with his third straight five-under-par 67.
Three-time champion Els (70) showed plenty of patience on a tough scoring day when the greens were playing tricky after drying up in the steady breeze.
The South African veteran was bogey-free and made just two birdies – on the third and 18th holes – to sit tied third alongside England’s Matt Wallace.
There was drama during the round when Australia’s Lucas Herbert (72), joint leader at the start of the day, was imposed a two-shot penalty after using his club to push the sand in a waste area on the third hole.
Herbert was informed of the ruling on the ninth hole and even though he showed remarkable tenacity and birdied his next four holes, he fell back for a tie of fifth place at 12-under.
The 25-year-old DeChambeau was one-over par for his round after a bogey on the eighth hole, but made a long birdie putt on the ninth to make the turn at even par, and then added four more birdies on the back nine.
The frustration of not making a birdie on the par-five 18th, and missing a short birdie putt on the 14th hole, was evident after his round.
“I’m just not 100 per cent with my Golf game right now. I’m still leading, obviously. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t be displeased with that, but my expectation levels are for how I know I can perform, and I feel like I’m underperforming a little bit,” said the man who has won three times in his last eight starts on the PGA Tour.
“I had a couple chances to right the ship and be three or four ahead, but I’m only one ahead. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Li could become only the second player in the 30-year history of the tournament to successfully defend his title after Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher in 2014. He made seven birdies and two bogeys, including a missed par putt from less than two feet on the par-four 16th hole.
“It would definitely mean a lot (to win again). I just want to play my best out there and tomorrow, hopefully hold the trophy again,” said the 23-year-old world number 43, who closed with successive birdies.
“It was pretty decent today. Actually, my long game was way better than the last couple days. And apart from 16, I putted well too.”
The rejuvenated Alvaro Quiros (71) of Spain looked like joining Li in second place, but wound up with a double bogey after hitting his second shot into the water on the 18th and is tied fifth at 12-under.
European Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood improved to tied 12th at 10-under.
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Four-time major winner Ernie Els rolled back the years to put himself in contention for a first victory since 2013 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Els carded a second round of 65 at Emirates Golf Club, where he won his first European Tour title 25 years ago, to finish alongside fellow former champion Alvaro Quiros on 11 under par, a shot off the halfway lead shared by world number five Bryson DeChambeau and Australia’s Lucas Herbert.
DeChambeau recorded seven birdies and an eagle in his second consecutive 66, while Herbert also had seven birdies and an eagle in a superb, bogey-free 63
Els is just nine months away from being eligible for the Champions Tour and is currently ranked 527th in the world, but the 49-year-old is a three-time winner of the event and amazingly never finished worse than eighth in his first 11 appearances.
“I like this place, as you know. I’ve had some really great times here,” Els said after a round containing an eagle, seven birdies and two bogeys.
“I’m swinging well, my body feels well. Just, you know, going on the memory bank, I guess.
“Playing with Colin (Montgomerie) and Jose (Maria Olazabal) was also fun. We’ve done a lot in the game, and we had a good couple of chats, and I found my form. You’ve got to love it.
“We try and play the game to win tournaments and do as good as you can. I’ve had a good time. I’ve been a professional for a very long time and I’ve got one more year before I’m 50. I’m only 50 in October so I’ll try and have a good year this year and just try and enjoy it.
“I think it might play a little tougher over the weekend and in the afternoons if the wind comes. But I think still just keep the foot on the pedal, try and make some birdies. I think 20 under is probably where you need to be or maybe even more. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
In contrast to Els, DeChambeau is seeking a fourth win in his last nine events, despite insisting he was far from his best for the second day running.
“I thought yesterday getting it around not making a bogey was awesome, but today even more impressive with three bogeys on the card, still shooting six under,” the American Ryder Cup player said.
“I was happy about that. Unfortunately, again, just didn’t have the right sensations and preparation over shots.
“I just felt uncomfortable, unfortunately, on a lot of them, and consequently just am not ball-striking my best. But hey, shoot, I’m not complaining one bit. There’s no complaining here for sure, so I’m happy.”
Herbert’s 63 was the lowest round of the week so far and was kickstarted by an eagle and two birdies in his first three holes, with five more birdies followed by a lengthy par-saving putt on the ninth, his final hole, after pulling his tee shot into the water.
“I don’t expect to shoot another two 63s out there,” the 23-year-old said. “I think today was some of the really good golf that I can play and it’s going to be hard to replicate that.
“But if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, I won’t be doing too much wrong. Keep the bogeys off the card, try and pick off those par fives and I don’t think we’ll be too far away from it Sunday afternoon.”
Defending champion Haotong Li and England’s Matt Wallace and Callum Shinkwin are two shots off the lead on 12 under, with overnight leader Matt Fitzpatrick a stroke further back following a 70.
World number five Bryson Dechambeau tees off alongside Tommy Fleetwood and Sergia Garcia as the Omega Dubai Desert Classic gets underway on Thursday.
Here’s the groups and UAE tee times for the first round.
Tee 1 – 07:10: Gonzalo Fdez-castaño, Kim Koivu, Matthieu Pavon
Tee 10 – 07:10: Gaganjeet Bhullar, David Drysdale, Trevor Immelman
Tee 1 – 07:20: Peter Hanson, Darren Fichardt, Hideto Tanihara
Tee 10 – 07:20: Ryan Fox, Shubhankar Sharma, Rayhan Thomas (Am)
Tee 1 – 07:30: Lucas Herbert, Lee Slattery, Joachim B. Hansen
Tee 10 – 07:30: Thomas Bjørn, Stephen Gallacher, Miguel Ángel Jiménez
Tee 1 – 07:40: Nino Bertasio, Marcus Kinhult, Dean Burmester
Tee 10 – 07:40: Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Haotong Li
Tee 1 – 07:50: Matthew Southgate, Gavin Green, Jovan Rebula (Am)
Tee 10 – 07:50: Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson, Thorbjørn Olesen
Tee 1 – 08:00: Kalle Samooja Raphaël Jacquelin, Phachara Khongwatmai
Tee 10 – 08:00: Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Bryson Dechambeau
Tee 1 – 08:10: Thongchai Jaidee, Paul Waring, Mikko Korhonen
Tee 1 – 08:10: Matt Wallace, Shane Lowry, Tyrrell Hatton
Tee 1 – 08:20: Andres Romero, Bernd Wiesberger, S.S.P. Chawrasia
Tee 10 – 08:20: Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, José María Olazábal
Tee 1 – 08:30: Bradley Dredge, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Thomas Aiken
Tee 10 – 08:30: Ross Fisher, Andy Sullivan, Jason Scrivener
Tee 1 – 08:40: Shaun Norris, James Morrison, Scott Hend
Tee 10 – 08:40: George Coetzee, Jaco Van Zyl, Mike Lorenzo-vera
Tee 1 – 08:50: Ashley Chesters, Victor Riu, Nacho Elvira
Tee 10 – 08:50: Chris Paisley, David Horsey, Ahmed Marjan
Tee 1 – 11:30: Jeunghun Wang, Renato Paratore, Richard Mcevoy
Tee 10 – 11:30: Callum Shinkwin, Matthias Schwab, Scott Jamieson
Tee 1 – 11:40: Edoardo Molinari, Sam Brazel, Joost Luiten
Tee 10 – 11:40: Yusaku Miyazato, Tapio Pulkkanen, Justin Harding
Tee 1 – 11:50: Jorge Campillo, Andrew Johnston, Andrea Pavan
Tee 10 – 11:50: Alvaro Quiros, Justin Walters, David Howell
Tee 1 – 12:00: Tom Lewis, Adrian Otaegui, Byeong Hun An
Tee 10 – 12:00: Fabrizio Zanotti, Jordan Smith, Ashun Wu
Tee 1 – 12:10: Eddie Pepperell, Alexander Björk, Kurt Kitayama
Tee 10 – 12:10: Wade Ormsby, Romain Wattel, Paul Dunne
Tee 1 – 12:20: Martin Kaymer, Rafa Cabrera Bello, David Lipsky
Tee 10 – 12:20: Jacques Kruyswijk, Steven Brown, Victor Dubuisson
Tee 1 – 12:30: Lucas Bjerregaard, Thomas Pieters, Matthew Fitzpatrick
Tee 10 – 12:30: Benjamin Hebert, Maximilian Kieffer, Pelle Edberg
Tee 1 – 12:40: Robert Karlsson, Thomas Detry, Aaron Rai
Tee 10 – 12:40: Nicolas Colsaerts, Pablo Larrazábal, Robert Rock
Tee 1 – 12:50: Brandon Stone, Søren Kjeldsen, Richard Sterne
Tee 10 – 12:50: Alexander Levy, Joakim Lagergren, Kristoffer Broberg
Tee 1 – 13:00: Richie Ramsay, Erik Van Rooyen, Romain Langasque
Tee 10 – 13:00: Jens Dantorp, Haydn Porteous, Victor Perez
Tee 1 – 13:10: Kristoffer Reitan, Marc Warren, Oliver Fisher
Tee 10 – 13:10: Sam Horsfield, Sean Crocker, Adri Arnaus