LOS ANGELES (AP) — Phil Mickelson knew immediately that he was going to enjoy this walk at Riviera.
Under blue skies off Sunset Boulevard, the last trace of wind was on its way out of town, leaving Mickelson and the late starters Friday afternoon in the Northern Trust Open with a second straight day of the easiest conditions. Then came a 3-iron from 247 yards on the par-5 first hole that was so true it left him 12 feet away for eagle.
He settled for a birdie, but that sent him on his way toward the top of the leaderboard, a position that is becoming familiar on this storied course of shotmaking and precision.
“I thought that was a nice way to start the round, because it wasn’t an easy pin to get up-and-down from a lot of places around the green,” Mickelson said.
What followed was a mixture of solid shots, some wizardry with his wedges and one big putt, a 60-footer that dropped into the center of the cup on its final turn for birdie at No. 5.
When he finished his round with a 20-foot birdie to strong applause from the fans scattered above the 18th green, Mickelson had a career best at Riviera, a 7-under 64 that gave him a four-shot lead. He was at 10-under 132, poised for the second straight year to capture a title in the one city on the West Coast swing that has eluded him over the years.
“A lot of putts went in,” he said. “Shots ended up close. It was a good day.”
Robert Allenby, who won at Riviera in a cold rain and a six-man playoff in 2001, ran off four straight birdies around the turn and finished with six straight pars for a 66 that put him at 6-under 136, along with Jeff Quinney (137).
The group at 137 included Chad Campbell, Scott Verplank and Scott McCarron, a UCLA grad who nearly won this tournament in 2002.
For those who faced a cold wind Thursday afternoon and more swirling breezes Friday morning, the best anyone could muster was David Toms (68) and Kevin Sutherland (69), each at 3-under 139.
“It was interesting, the last 27 holes that I’ve played with the wind and everything,” Toms said. “You certainly had to think about it on your club selection. It made a lot of the holes play very difficult. Overall, I’ll take the two rounds I’ve put on the board.”
For the second straight day, not everyone finished the round before dark. It got so bad that Charlie Hoffman had time to go to the pretzel stand between the second green and the third tee.
“So there will be a Saturday cut,” quipped Rory Sabbatini on his way to the 18th tee as the sun began to dip behind the hill, and players were still just making the turn.
The Players Advisory Council recommended this week another change in policy to a Saturday cut if the field is more than 78 players. If approved, that wouldn’t happen until Florida at the earliest. Otherwise, when the cut is more than 78 players, only the closest to 60 can play on the weekend, and the notorious “Rule 78” looked as though it could happen for the third time in five events.
The cut won’t be made until six players finish the second round Saturday morning, and it could be a lost cause for at least eight players.
When everyone went home Friday night, the cut was 79 players at 3 over, including John Merrick and Marc Turnesa, who had two holes remaining. If either make birdie, the cut is at 2 over. If both make two pars, the cut would be 3 over, although 10 players would not get to play on the weekend.
None of this mattered to Mickelson, of course.
Lefty is in his element on the West Coast, winning 15 of his 32 titles in either California or Arizona, everywhere from Palm Springs to Pebble Beach, from Torrey Pines to La Costa, Tucson and Phoenix. Everywhere but Los Angeles.
He said he is desperate to add this trophy to his collection, and someone asked him Friday if this was the one tournament he wanted.
“Well, I haven’t won the U.S. or British Open either, and I really want to win those,” he said. “But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.”
The guys chasing him were not jumping to any conclusions.
“If Phil is at 10 under, that’s fine,” Allenby said. “There’s a long way to go. There’s still 36 holes to go and a lot of birdies out there. I’ve made plenty of birdies here before, so there’s no reason why I can’t do it on the weekend.”
Quinney will join Mickelson and Allenby in the final group. Quinney made a late surge up the leaderboard, including birdies on the 12th and 15th holes, but ran into trouble on the last hole.
Four shots behind the second-ranked player in golf can be daunting, but so is Riviera.
“You don’t have to shoot 8 under on Saturday,” Quinney said about the deficit. “If you get firm greens and the wind blows a little bit, a couple under can move you a long way.”
Even so, Mickelson appears to be hitting his stride.
Strangely enough, Riviera had not been kind to him in the past. It was not part of his regular schedule on the West Coast, and when he did play, hardly anyone noticed. Until last year, Mickelson missed the cut in four of eight appearances in the Northern Trust Open, and never finished better than a tie for 15th.
Last year, however, he was on the verge of victory until a bogey on the 18th hole and a playoff loss to Charles Howell III. Now, he takes a four-shot lead into the weekend and is as optimistic as ever.
“I don’t know why it’s turned,” he said. “When I played last year, I felt really good on the course, and I felt I was going to play well. And I felt heading into this week I was really close to playing well.”