Golf: Varner leads Arnaus, Fleetwood in Saudi International

Harold Varner III of the US takes a shot during the third round. PHOTO: AFP

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) - American Harold Varner III hit a birdie on the closing hole to pull one shot clear of Spain's Adri Arnaus in a blustery third round at the Saudi International on Saturday (Feb 5).

As some of the leading players found the wind too strong for their liking, Varner birdied the par-five 18th for a round of 68 to sit on 12-under-par in the Asian Tour season-opener.

Both Varner and Arnaus had been neck and neck with matching rounds of 64 and 66 in the first two days at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, with the Spaniard carding a one-under 69 on the third day.

England's Tommy Fleetwood drew on his childhood experiences of playing in difficult conditions with his friend and caddie Ian Finnis, and his three-under 67 made sure he would play in the final group on Sunday for the second successive week after the Dubai Desert Classic.

Australia's Cameron Smith made a par on the last hole despite smashing his tee shot into the water and was in fourth place at eight-under, one shot ahead of defending champion Dustin Johnson, Japan's Ryosuke Kinoshita and Australia's Wade Ormsby.

Varner, one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour despite his short height, said he got lucky with his drive down the 18th hole, which was playing downwind.

"Cam went into the water, and I got saved because I pulled my driver and it got stuck in the rough," said the 31-year-old winner of the 2016 Australian PGA Championship.

However, Varner hit a wonderful second shot from the thick rough over water to about 15 feet. He missed the eagle putt, but it led to an easy birdie.

The world number 99 had earlier made a crucial eagle on the par-five fourth hole, where he drained a putt from nearly 70 feet.

"I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the wind. I think that's awesome," he said. "That's what it's all about. Life's hard. Golf is easy."

Arnaus made five birdies but also gave away four bogeys.

A resident of Dubai for the past three years, the 27-year-old won the Challenge Tour Grand Finals in Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE in 2018, and is still seeking a win on one of the main Tours.

"I just think that we get the hang of how the course is playing with each day," he said.

"I've been really working on keeping a low flight on some of the shots coming into the green, and I think it has paid off on a few shots during the week.

"Just stick to the same game plan tomorrow. Probably be a little more aggressive on the back nine. Just try and play some smart golf."

World number eight and Olympic gold medallist Xander Schauffele was the only player in the field to finish the day bogey-free, but with just one birdie to show for it, he could only move up to tied-eighth at six-under overall.

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