LOS ANGELES (AP) — Riviera felt like a roller coaster to Phil Mickelson to the very end.
Never mind the four scores he put together at the Northern Trust Open to successfully defend his title on Sunday. He opened with a personal-best 63 and was nine shots worse the next day. Butch Harmon arrived Saturday morning to help stabilize his swing, and Lefty went even lower with a 62 to take command.
Then came another 1-over 72, and it was just enough to avoid the biggest collapse of his career.
Mickelson rolled in a 6-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a one-shot victory over Steve Stricker, and while it wasn’t the most memorable of his 35 career victories on the PGA Tour, it was no less satisfying.
“It gives me confidence and something to build on for the rest of the year,” Mickelson said. “Even when I didn’t have my best stuff, I was able to fight through it. That meant a lot to me. I certainly have some work to do. But at least I’m on the right path, the right direction. And I’m having some success now, even without maybe my best stuff.”
Stricker closed with a 67, making bogey on the 18th hole that he knew would cost him.
Another stroke back was the real heartbreak of Riviera – Fred Couples, 49 and in his last full season on the PGA Tour, rejuvenated on a course where he has won twice and considers his favorite this side of Augusta National. Couples missed two birdies inside 8 feet on the front nine, and trailing by only one shot on the 18th, fanned a shot into the eucalyptus trees and made bogey for a 69.
He tied for third with Andres Romero (70) and K.J. Choi (69).
Mickelson joined Ben Hogan, Corey Pavin and Mike Weir as the only repeat winners at Riviera, and he felt a sense of relief and satisfaction as he hoisted the trophy beneath the fabled clubhouse off Sunset Boulevard.
He was in a position he had never been in during his 17 years on tour, then in a spot that was all too familiar.
Starting the final round with a four-shot lead, Mickelson watched his tee shots fly all over Riviera – into the trees and a barranca on the right, into trees and the thick rough to the right, and it didn’t take long for his cushion to get deflated.
He has never blown a lead that large in his career, but when Stricker made three birdies in a four-hole stretch around the turn, he suddenly had a one-shot lead. Mickelson fell two shots behind when he found the bunker on the par-3 14th and missed a 7-foot par putt, and remained two behind with three holes to play.
“I had a five-shot lead, and I let it slide,” Mickelson said, alluding to his 40-foot eagle at the start of the round.
The recovery was swift and impressive.
Mickelson hit a strong 9-iron at the flag on the par-3 16th and saw it land 5 feet behind the hole. He made the tricky birdie putt, then hammered his best tee shot of the round on the par-5 17th, allowing him to reach the green with a 3-wood. He two-putted from 70 feet, again making a tough 6-footer down the slope.
That allowed him to regain the lead when Stricker missed out on two opportunities.
Coming off a blown three-shot lead of his own at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, when high wind sent him to a devastating quadruple bogey on the 10th hole in the desert, Stricker was poised to deliver a knockout punch until missing a 12-foot birdie on the 17th.
Then came a hooked tee shot that kept him from reaching the green, and a pedestrian chip that left him 12 feet from the hole for par. He missed that, and suspected it would cost him.
“I had a good putt at it,” he said of the 18th. “But I was really looking to make that one at 17. It’s just a little disappointing when you don’t finish it off, or have the opportunity to finish it off. And I didn’t do it.”
Mickelson took a one-shot lead with his birdie on the 17th, but the work was just beginning.
It was only two years ago when he thought he had the tournament wrapped up, leading by one shot on the 18th tee. But he hit his tee shot well left of the fairway, missed the green, made a sloppy bogey and wound up in a playoff that he ended up losing.
“Another thing that was important to me was standing on the 18th tee, when two years ago I had a one-shot lead, drove in the rough and made a bogey,” Mickelson said. “That meant a lot to be able to put that tee shot on the fairway.”
It still wasn’t easy from there. His 6-iron was just off the green, 60 feet away, and the putt came up 6 feet short.
Stricker was standing on the steps of the clubhouse when he saw what Mickelson had to do for his winning par, and only then did he head for the range. But he wasn’t there long. Stricker has been around long enough to know what a big cheer means from around the 18th green, and he put his clubs away.
“It was exciting to get into the thick of things,” he said.
Couples wasn’t sure what to make of his chances. The last time he played in a final group was the 2006 Masters, where Mickelson pulled away late in the round. Adding to the complexity of the week was that his estranged wife, Thais, died Tuesday of breast cancer.
They had been in divorce proceedings for more than three years, and Couples said he is not welcome in their Santa Barbara home. It was hard to detect how emotional the week was; only Couples knows that.
For Mickelson, it was important to get on track before the tour left the West Coast, where he now has won 17 times.
He finished at 15-under 269, moves up to No. 3 in the world ranking and head to Arizona for the Accenture Match Play Championship, where Tiger Woods will return from knee surgery after eight months.
Strangely enough, that was Mickelson’s first victory since Woods left.