Scott McCarron made five birdies and two bogeys on Friday.
Reed Saxon/AP
Saturday, February 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Scott McCarron used to look forward to Thursday when he was in college, for that was the day the UCLA golf team was allowed to play at Riviera.

The fabled course intimidated him at first sight - he'd wonder if he could ever break 70 - but that no longer is the case. The first time he played in the final group at Riviera was in 1997, alongside Masters champion Nick Faldo and Craig Stadler. McCarron was poised to win seven years ago, with a three-shot lead on the back nine, but had to settle for second.

"I love this golf course," he said Friday in the Northern Trust Open after Riviera showed him some love back.

He finished the second round when it was nearly dark, barely able to see the 18th green from 211 yards, knowing it was a tough shot because of the trees and 5-wood in his hand. Aiming left of the green toward the grandstand, he pulled off a beautiful fade that landed in the middle of the green and rolled 10 feet from the cup.

The final birdie gave him a 3-under 68 and a two-shot lead over Steve Stricker and Tommy Armour III.

And it gave him another chance on Sunset Boulevard.

"It's all about getting myself into position," McCarron said. "If I could have put up another good number, I could have separated myself a little bit. But it's difficult to separate yourself on a course like this."

That much was evident by looking at the leaderboard heading into the weekend, with nine players separated by three shots.

McCarron was at 10-under 132 and will play in the final group Saturday with Stricker (66) and Armour (67). Another shot back was Phil Mickelson, who was nine shots worse than his opening 63, yet still optimistic about ending his West Coast slump.

"This is the first time I'm in contention heading into the weekend, and I'm excited about it," he said.

Joining him in the group at 7-under 135 were five players who know how to win, two of them with recent experience. Geoff Ogilvy, who went wire-to-wire at Kapalua to start the year, had a 67. Bob Hope Classic winner Pat Perez had a 66. Then there was Rory Sabbatini, the Riviera winner three years ago, Luke Donald and K.J. Choi.

Twilight on Friday must have felt like those old college days for McCarron - cool air, the fresh smell of eucalyptus, and hardly any fans roaming the golf course, except for the Japanese media mass tailing 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who missed the cut.

The biggest cheers McCarron has had all week came Thursday night when he and other former UCLA golfers were introduced at halftime of the Bruins' win over Washington.

Maybe that will change if McCarron can keep it up.

"I love being here in Pacific Palisades, in Westwood, going to a basketball game last night," he said. "I have a lot of friends and fraternity brothers following me, and it feels good to play well."

Mickelson didn't play so well, but he held it together with a 72.

He opened with a 30-foot eagle putt to build an early lead, but that was among the few highlights. Mickelson found the right side of the par-3 sixth green - the wrong place to be with the pin in the back left and a bunker in the middle of the green - then bogeyed consecutive holes on the back nine.

"Obviously, I've got to get things turned around," he said. "I just couldn't get it to click. But we've got two more days."

Not so for Ishikawa and Vincent Johnson, both making their PGA Tour debut.

The Japanese sensation said he wasn't quite as nervous as the opening round - 70 percent Friday, down from 100 percent Thursday - but it didn't matter. He shot an even-par 71 and finished at 2-over 144 to miss the cut by three shots.

"Even though I only played two days and missed the cut, I don't look at it as a failure," he said. "It gives me more incentive to work harder on my game to be able to play at this level."

Johnson learned a lesson the hard way.

He opened with a 70, then added a pair of birdies through three holes Friday. But he ran into problems on the fifth hole, and found himself chipping for par from right of the green.

But the ball moved ever so slightly as he placed his wedge behind it. Johnson wasn't sure it moved, so he checked with his playing partner, Bryce Molder, who did not think it did.

Television showed otherwise, and when rules official Steve Rintoul caught up with Johnson on the seventh tee, he had to deliver the bad news.

It was a two-shot penalty - one for the ball moving, another for not replacing it.

"It hurts, on a really big stage, to have something like that happen," he said. "But sometimes you have to take your medicine and just learn, and it won't happen again."

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