LOS ANGELES (AP) — As the weather got worse, Steve Stricker got better Friday in the Northern Trust Open.
Stricker chipped in for birdie and twice nearly holed out for eagle – with a pitching wedge from 50 yards and a hybrid from 230 – on his way to a 6-under 65 and the early lead at Riviera.
He made so many birdies that ordinarily he might have seen sorry to see the round end.
Not on this day.
Rain started falling as Stricker was finishing up on the practice range, and it didn’t let up over the next five hours. The cold, wet conditions made Riviera play so tough that Stricker could barely reach the par-4 18th with a 3-wood.
Even so, he kept piling up birdies and pulling away from the field.
“I’m very happy to be done with the round, to tell you the truth,” Stricker said. “It was pretty miserable out there today.”
Stricker was at 10-under 132 and had a four-shot lead over the other early starters. Kevin Stadler rallied for a 71 and was at 6-under 136 along with Tim Wilkinson, who had a 67.
Dustin Johnson, who opened with a 7-under 64 for the first-round lead, quickly caught up to Stricker and passed him with a hole-in-one on the sixth hole, the par 3 with a bunker in the middle of the green. He still had three hours left in the rain.
Stricker played in the same group with Anthony Kim, who drove onto the par-4 10th green to open his round and managed eight birdies in his round of 66 to finish at 5-under 137, along with Steve Marino (67) and Ricky Barnes (71).
Despite a few wild tee shots, including one that landed next to the media center between the first and second fairways, Phil Mickelson got back in the game with a 66 that moved him from a tie for 83rd to a tie for ninth when he finished. Mickelson was at 138, and while he might not stay in the top 10 by the end of the day, he’s at least closer to the lead than when he started.
“I’m in a position where a good round tomorrow and I can get in contention for Sunday, so that’s where I wanted to get myself,” said Mickelson, who is trying to become the first player to win three straight years at Riviera.
Stricker steadied himself early, hitting into the front bunker and holing a 15-foot par putt from the fringe on the 303-yard 10th hole. His best golf came right around the turn.
After smashing a 3-wood that still didn’t make it onto the 18th green – players had been hitting 9-iron on Thursday – he chipped in for birdie from nearly 60 feet.
Then came the par-5 first, typically the easiest hole at Riviera.
From the right side of the fairway, Stricker stepped off his yardage and realized he’d have to hit a 3-wood flush to come close to the green. Instead, he hit a hybrid short and left of the bunker, giving him a good angle for a 50-yard pitching that checked up next to the hole.
“We had like 247 (yards) to cover the whole bunker, and we hadn’t been able to hit anything 247,” Stricker said. “Even our drivers were going about 236. I knew I couldn’t get there, so I just wanted to lay up as close to that bunker as I could – the pin was in the back – and give myself a good look at birdie.”
Then came the 230-yard fourth, where Stricker’s hybrid hit the lip and settled some 20 inches away for birdie.
“That’s like stealing one,” he said.
He added two more birdies for a round that left Ernie Els and others amazed.
“Breaking par is tough today,” Els said after his 70 put him six shots behind.
Stricker started his day in a sweater, quickly added a sleeveless rain jacket and kept his head down. The forecast is for rain to last into Saturday before giving way to the sun for the final round.
Even though he scored well, rain isn’t much fun for anyone.
“It’s tough to make a regular swing,” Stricker said. “You’ve got a lot of clothes on, you’re wet. It’s just not as easy swinging on a day like today compared to a 70-degree, sunny day. A good short game and patience is key.”
Stricker is loaded with both of them, which came in handy on a rainy day off Sunset Boulevard.