Mickelson shot an 8-under 63 on Thursday.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Friday, February 20, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Riviera brought out a small measure of revival in Phil Mickelson.

Lefty usually plays his best golf on the Left Coast, with 16 victories in every city where the PGA Tour has played in California and Arizona. He has never gone without a top 10 on this side of the country, a streak that was in jeopardy after the way Mickelson opened his season.

He missed the cut in Phoenix.

He couldn't crack the top 40 at Torrey Pines, where he has won three times.

And he needed a birdie on the final hole at Pebble Beach to make the cut. Just his luck, that meant sticking around a few more days until the tournament was called off because of bad weather.

``And keep me over an extra day?'' Mickelson said. ``That was brilliant on my part.''

He was brilliant in the truest sense Thursday at the Northern Trust Open with an 8-under 63, his best ever on the fabled course located a canyon away from the Pacific Ocean. Mickelson won the tournament last year, and lost in a playoff the year before.

``I have a lot of confidence coming onto this golf course,'' he said.

It sure didn't look good from the start.

Opening his round on the tricky 10th hole, a par 4 of 302 yards that can be terrifying, Mickelson hit his driver some 40 yards over the green into thick rough. He had to carry a shallow bunker, leaving him hardly any room between the bunker and the green. Picture a golf bag standing on the collar of the green, and that would be the size of his landing area.

``It was a very difficult shot there, with only two yards of green to work with,'' Mickelson said. ``It was one of the better shots I've hit this year, actually.''

That's not saying much considering this was the first time he has broken 70.

But the rest of his game was sharp, too. The misses weren't nearly as wild, the putts dropped far more frequently and Mickelson picked up confidence with each of his eight birdies on a gorgeous morning off Sunset Boulevard.

``There's three more rounds to go,'' he said. ``But I feel like I'm back on track.''

Scott McCarron birdied his last hole for a 64. The group at 66 included Pebble Beach winner Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, K.J. Choi and Luke Donald. Riviera was in immaculate shape, and with ideal scoring conditions, 52 players shots in the 60s. That included Fred Couples and former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger at 67.

Mickelson is wildly popular in these parts, and he had a sizable gallery.

The photographers, though, belonged to 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa.

The Japanese sensation made his PGA Tour debut before about 100 members of the Japanese media, along with a dozen or so other media curious about the ``Shy Prince'' who made history at age 15 by winning on the Japan Golf Tour.

He opened with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 first hole before running into problems with his putter, and he wound up with a 73. Ishikawa missed one par putt from 4 feet, and three-putted from 5 feet for a double bogey on the seventh.

``I had been nervous for 18 holes,'' he said. ``I feel like my body has been stiff all day.''

The other PGA Tour debut belonged to Vincent Johnson, playing on the Charlie Sifford Exemption that is awarded to a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf.

He birdied his first hole with a wedge to tap-in range on the tricky 10th hole and calmed his nerves while shooting 70.

``That set the tone for the day,'' Johnson said. ``I said to myself, 'I can do this.'''

He also was one of the few players to ever drive onto the 12th green, although Johnson was teeing off on No. 11. His ball caught a tree and landed on the adjacent green.

``It was a little embarrassing,'' he said. ``But then I hit a 4-iron into the trees, punched out short and got my par. I knew if I had anything around par, I would be playing decent.''

Mickelson went through five buckets of balls on the range at Pebble Beach in the rain Sunday, had three good days of practice, went back to the old shafts in his irons and eliminated the mistakes that had been dragging him down.

``When you don't play well, you're not going to rest until you get back on track,'' Mickelson said. ``Today's score, it was obviously a good round, but I didn't feel that I played immaculate. I still feel a thought it's coming. The reason why the score was so low is I ended up making some putts, and I holed a chip, and I got up-and-down on every green that I missed, which is helpful.''

He chipped in for birdie on the par-5 17th after his wedge spun off the front of the green. The most pure shot was a 4-iron on the 244-yard fourth hole that stopped a foot away.

Even so, nothing topped his opening hole. It was so impressive that this caddie, Jim Mackay, who has seen plenty of spectacular shots from Mickelson, was shaking his head.

``Obviously, the way to play this hole is go 40 yards long into a bad lie,'' he said.

Mickelson wasn't as forthcoming.

``I've played that hole very effectively the last couple of years, and have played it under par and bettered the field average,'' he said, pausing to smile. ``And I'd rather not say what I'm trying to do there.''

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