Phil Mickelson won the Northern Trust Open last year by two shots.
Reed Saxon/AP
Thursday, February 19, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Not even the player parking lot at Riviera was immune to a traffic jam. Phil Mickelson waited not only for the other courtesy cars to clear, but for attendants to move two orange cones and two golf bags so he could park in a special place.

Being the defending champion has its privileges.

Mickelson took a five-year hiatus from the Northern Trust Open, but he fell in love with the tournament upon his return. He lost in a playoff one year, then atoned for that with a two-shot victory last year.

Now, Riviera could be just what he needs.

Lefty usually thrives on the Left Coast, with 16 victories and 40 finishes in the top 10. But this has been a dismal start to his season, having missed the cut in Phoenix and failing to crack the top 40 at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach.

"I've played well here the last couple of years," Mickelson said Wednesday before teeing off in his pro-am. "I had a good practice session this morning, and I think it's starting to come around. But the first three weeks obviously were not what I wanted. This is a great place to get it turned around."

Mickelson hasn't been able to pinpoint the problem, but he can't ignore the shots that stray out-of-bounds, or making bogeys on the par 5s. His goal for the week is to "get the misses back under control."

Is he worried?

"I don't think 'worrying' is the word," Mickelson said. "I think about it a lot, trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Right now, it's just been a little rusty and I haven't played the way I would like. It doesn't feel as far off as the scores are indicating, so I feel like if I can just get a little thing here and there, and the misses can come back down into play, I'll be OK."

The Northern Trust Open again has a strong field - not quite as strong as last year, when it had more players in the top 15 of the world ranking than any event behind the four majors, three World Golf Championships and The Players Championship.

Mickelson is among five of the top 10 at Riviera, which has an international feel for the first time this year on the PGA Tour.

Part of that is because the Accenture Match Play in next week in Arizona, so several European Tour players are making their U.S. debut, from Soren Hansen and Graeme McDowell to Jeev Milkha Singh and Oliver Wilson.

But the out-of-towner making the biggest buzz is 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa.

"Hello, America," the Japanese sensation said when introducing himself in English during his press conference.

Ishikawa made history at age 15 when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup on the Japan Golf Tour while a freshman in high school. That made him the youngest winner on a tour recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking.

He won again last year in his first full year as a pro, finishing fifth on the Japanese money list.

No matter how he fares at Riviera, he already is assured of having the largest media following. Tournament organizers received an additional 100 requests for credentials from the Japanese, and the PGA Tour hired an interpreter and assigned an additional media official just to shadow the teenager known in Japan as the "Shy Prince."

How does one so young cope with so much attention?

"I've been asked the same question, if I feel any pressure," Ishikawa said. "But actually, I haven't thought about pressure itself. At times, I get nervous, but I always try to be positive, rather than negative. More fans come to watch, and I'm more happy."

Tiger Woods was 16 when he made his PGA Tour debut, but he was still an amateur, still wild and shot 72-75 to miss the cut. Ishikawa was already a pro at that age, and so far up the world ranking that he narrowly missed qualifying for the Match Play.

All of this is difficult for someone like Hunter Mahan to grasp.

"I was 17 and played Travelers Championship in Hartford and just missed the cut by one," he said. "But to be a pro, I've got no chance at that? I wouldn't know what to do. I would probably have to call my mom and go, 'What do I do? I want to eat, what do I do?' I wasn't mature enough to handle it. But I'm sure he is."

The other special guest at Riviera is Vincent Johnson, an Oregon State graduate who received the first Charlie Sifford Exemption for players who represents the advancement of diversity in golf.

That will make it two tournaments in the last three weeks with a player of African-American heritage, and Woods hasn't even played this year as he recovers from knee surgery.

"It's just been a little surreal, this whole thing," Johnson said. "Finding out that I was just a candidate, I was really honored because of what Mr. Sifford stands for. And to receive it ... things like this don't happen to me."

Ishikawa is used to this, and Johnson figured that out during a practice round Tuesday. After walking off the green, the first thing he noticed behind him was a group of 50 photographers and a kid in bright yellow pants.

"Now I know how Tiger feels," Johnson said. "It was good that it was behind me. But I'm sure at this point, he's oblivious to it."

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