The U.S. Open champion shot an 8-under-par 64 in the third round on Saturday to catapult into title contention in his first European Tour event of 2017.
Johnson started the day eight shots off the lead and finished it in a five-way tie for second at 12 under par, one stroke behind new leader Tyrrell Hatton.
Johnson is showing a steady improvement on the 7,583-yard, American-style National Course, which was always going to suit one of the biggest hitters in the sport. He opened with an even-par 72, made the cut by shooting a 68 and then - refreshed after his best sleep of the week - powered through the field by making six birdies and chipping in for eagle from the back of the eighth green.
''Definitely by far the best day I've been feeling out on the golf course,'' said Johnson, who is playing for the first time in Abu Dhabi after receiving a sponsor's invitation. ''You know, just felt the swing, my body was moving a lot better.
''I think it's a course you need to play a few times to get the exact lines you need to take off the tees and stuff.''
He's in contention despite missing out on the par 5s, which are usually his strength. In 12 attempts, he has 11 pars and one eagle, which is bemusing the easygoing American.
''I'll make four birdies tomorrow, it will be all right,'' Johnson said.
Martin Kaymer, seeking a fourth victory in Abu Dhabi, started the third round with a one-shot lead over Rafa Cabrera Bello, but they were two of the 14 players who failed to break par on a low-scoring day. Kaymer shot a 72 and Cabrera Bello had a 74.
Hatton, a rising star from England, broke free from a five-way share of first place late in the day by rolling in an 8-foot putt for a birdie on the 18th and a 68.
''I'm a little bit surprised where I am,'' said the 23rd-ranked Hatton, who said he spent most of his offseason on his Xbox playing ''Call of Duty.'' He finished in the top 10 at both the British Open and U.S. PGA Championship, and he won the Alfred Dunhill Links in Scotland in October for his first European Tour title.
Hatton will be grouped with Johnson and 2014 winner Pablo Larrazabal, who shot a 69 in the third round, in the final on Sunday. They are tied for second with Kaymer and two players who shot a 70 on Saturday, Tommy Fleetwood and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
Sixteen players are within three shots of the lead.