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Phil Mickelson blisters Riviera with a 63

Left-hander has by far his best round of the year and leads Scott McCarron by one.

February 20, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

A sport allegedly bereft of buzz certainly did unleash a whole bale of commotion Thursday.

The familiar old Mickelson philharmonic righted some recent discordance and played Riviera Country Club by morning to the tune of eight-under-par 63. A fresh Woods blast came blaring into the Northern Trust Open from clear across the continent around 2 o'clock with the news Tiger Woods would return next week at the Accenture Match Play near Tucson.

The lucrative clatter of the masses trailed the 17-year-old Japanese supernova Ryo Ishikawa and his opening 73 -- and those masses were just the reporters and photographers in from Tokyo and thereabout. And if you cupped your ear, you might've even thought you heard "Hail to the Hills of Westwood," seeing as how 43-year-old UCLA alumnus Scott McCarron shot 64 for second place and 26-year-old UCLA alumnus John Merrick joined six other golfers in third place with 66s.

"I felt great today," Merrick said, and he could have spoken for many in the whole cloudless exercise, including the names that joined him at 66 including Jim Furyk, Luke Donald, K.J. Choi, the scalding Dustin Johnson and even Andres Romero, the 27-year-old Argentine who nearly won the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.

You want violins? They could've played to Mickelson's lob shot from behind the green in the rough over the bunker to six feet after he'd driven 329 yards and over the green on No. 10, his first hole. Or his chip-in from the front fringe on No. 17. Or his sand wedge 121 yards to two feet on No. 3. Or his daydream four-iron from the tee on celebrated No. 4.

That one stopped at one foot, because the previous approach just hadn't been good enough.

"I didn't feel that I played immaculate," he said, making one wonder how immaculate must look as, for one thing, it's hard to out-immaculate his number of putts: 22.

He'd averaged 29.4 among other leaks this nascent year as he missed the cut in Phoenix, finished tied for 42nd in San Diego, tied for 55th in Pebble Beach and forced golf freaks to note his incapacity to exploit Woods' eight-month absence.

Yet in touring Riviera as defending champion with eight birdies and zero bogeys, he not so much beat 70 for the first time in 10 rounds this season as mauled it.

It looked as if waking at 5 a.m. in a different city (Rancho Santa Fe) and flying to a small airport (Santa Monica) and maybe even making it home after the round for fatherly duty (collecting the offspring at school) served as some sort of salve.

Turns out, though, he'd just needed to move his game leftward.

"When I played in Phoenix and had penalty strokes, they were all to the right; I hooked it," he said.

"When I was at Pebble Beach and Poppy Hills, I hit it out of bounds, all to the right, hooked it. I can't play the game with a hook.

"You've seen me win tournaments flailing it left. I can do that all day long and the misses are never going to be as great as a snap-hook. So that block-left has to be my miss, if I'm going to play well. And it's evident the first three weeks that I just can't play missing it to the right."

McCarron just couldn't play Riviera so well in fall 1983, but that's because he'd just alighted as a freshman Bruin whereupon he began considering 75 a sublime score here. Now 25 years and three tour wins and $10.5 million in earnings later, he sees Planet Golf from age 43 and feels "thoroughly amazed at how far these young kids are hitting it."

On a recuperative day for creaking bones when the leaderboard showed 67s belonging to 49-year-old Fred Couples, 49-year-old Tommy Armour III, 49-year-old Paul Azinger and 46-year-old Kirk Triplett, maybe McCarron spoke for these savvy geriatrics.

"I've still got maybe a little extra gear," he said, "but it's more like a Volkswagen Beetle, as opposed to somebody's Ferrari," and as one Ferrari he mentioned Johnson, the Pebble Beach champion who has played his last 84 holes with only two bogeys and one double bogey and who said, "I don't know golf, when you're playing well, you just kind of keep going."

He said that from age 24, while Ishikawa spoke from a wise 17 about a kind of nervousness he'd never felt his whole entire life, and while the biggest racket came, familiarly, from a guy who's 33.

So as the news of Woods' return had begun settling over the grounds, one more little sound was the fine Kentucky twang of 10th-ranked Kenny Perry, who spoke of the ailing economy and the needs of the tour and said gently of Woods' return, "It's awesome."

--

chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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