DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Victor Perez has played his best golf in the biggest events on the European Tour this season.
The French golfer is doing it again at the season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai, putting him in contention to be the continent’s top player for 2020.
Perez shot 5-under 67 on Thursday to take a one-stroke lead after the first round of the Race to Dubai finale. Up to 60 players could be crowned Europe’s No. 1 with a win on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Emirates, with the Race to Dubai standings unusually congested because of the condensed nature of the pandemic-affected season.
After 18 holes, Perez is the projected champion, with long birdie putts at Nos. 11 14 and 17 moving him into the outright lead. The putt at the 14th came from off the green, Perez using his 3-wood to roll the ball up the slope and down into the cup.
“The position I’m in, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Perez, who started the week at No. 6 in the standings after runner-up finishes at the Abu Dhabi Championship and the BMW PGA Championship — arguably the top two regular-season events on tour.
“So for me, it’s a ‘going for it’ mentality to keep for the four rounds.”
Matt Fitzpatrick, Robert MacIntyre and Erik van Rooyen were tied for second place after 68s, while Tommy Fleetwood made the best start of leading contenders for the Race to Dubai title, rolling in a birdie at the last for a 69 to be two shots back.
Fleetwood, who is No. 2 in the Race to Dubai standings behind Patrick Reed, was Europe’s No. 1 golfer in 2017 and would have become a two-time champion last year had he not been pipped to the World Tour Championship title by Jon Rahm in the final round.
Reed, who is looking to become the first American to win what was formally known as the Order of Merit title on the European Tour, followed Fleetwood in making birdie at No. 18 after an approach to 4 feet and had a bogey-free 70.
Another American, U.S. PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, shot an even-par 72. Morikawa is third in the Race to Dubai standings.
There are 2,000 points available for the winner this week, with the player finishing last receiving 30. Reed has 2,427.7 points heading into the 38th and final event of a European Tour season like no other.