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GOLF

Phil Mickelson retakes command with a 62 at Riviera

With some help from his coach, the defending champion has a four-shot lead.

February 22, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

Continuing its nine-century assault on the human race, the merciless Scottish concoction that goes by a four-letter word -- "golf" -- had taken yet another poor sap Friday and wrung him discombobulated.

It had sicced its meanness even on a man who has won three major titles, 34 PGA Tour championships and $50.5 million, and it had left Phil Mickelson peeved and wondering how a dreamy 63 on Thursday could have led to a bloody 72 on Friday.

Lonely and needy, the envied 38-year-old magnate who commutes to Riviera Country Club each day on a Gulfstream jet dialed rapidly for help -- from the scorer's tent.

"As soon as I signed the card, I called to see if he was available," Mickelson said. "Fortunately, he was, and I appreciate his wife letting him go. They just got back, that day, Thursday or Friday, from vacation, and here he is hopping on a plane, and I'm certainly appreciative."

He referred to the Las Vegas swing maharishi Butch Harmon, and he spoke after a Saturday round that ended in 62 spotless strokes, one shy of Ted Tryba's course record from 1999.

"He's pretty good at what he does," Mickelson said puckishly.

When the 62 had finished blowing through an overcast Saturday ripe for scoring at the Northern Trust Open, it had further healed a trying Mickelson winter, left the left-hander 16 under par and left a crammed leaderboard looking pretty far upward.

"It's a tough job, but I will try to do my best," said Andres Romero, the 27-year-old Argentine who shot 65, claimed second place and trailed Mickelson by four.

"Discouraging? Yes," quipped 49-year-old Fred Couples, who shot 65 in his 26th stop at this tour event and trailed by five.

"The scary things are he could have gone even lower out there," said 2006 champion Rory Sabbatini, who played with Mickelson, shot 67 and trailed by five.

K.J. Choi and Scott McCarron also trailed by five, and then three trailed by six -- Dustin Johnson, Steve Stricker and Mark Calcavecchia, whose 64 at age 48 retold of Riviera's favoritism toward wizened eyes that can read illegible greens.

"When you're 29, you think somebody being 40 years old is borderline ancient," said Calcavecchia, winner of the 1989 British Open at Royal Troon at 29. "Jeez, I'm almost 50. You think 50 is near death."

As he spoke in early afternoon, the multitudes remained bunched on the leaderboard and reintroduced to happy galleries the 1990 and 1992 champion Couples, who said of Riviera, "It's, besides Augusta, my favorite course and I feel like no matter how I'm playing, I'm going to come here and play well."

Sure enough, before Riviera in 2009, Couples had gone T-60 at the Hope, missed cut at the FBR Open, T-63 at Torrey Pines and missed cut at Pebble Beach, sort of reminiscent of another former Masters champion who'd gone missed cut, T-42, T-55 and one flummoxing 72 on Friday.

That's why Harmon jetted in and he and Mickelson did whatever it is golf savants do when they work two separate sessions with one break in one morning before tee time.

"It wasn't that far off," Mickelson said. "I just wasn't quite controlling the miss and getting the club to go through smoothly. I wasn't controlling the fades the way I would like to and being able to draw at will."

Well, he marched out for his 9:49 a.m. tee time and flat-out controlled some misses and controlled some fades and drew at will.

Starting off in third place three shots off the lead, he eagled No. 1 for the second straight day using the three-wood for which he might just write sonnets, apparently the first three-wood of his life "that's this easy to hit and gets up that high." He birdied No. 4 from 22 feet to reach 10 under par and cruised along.

The back nine he simply mistreated, with six birdies, including four in a row on Nos. 14-17, four holes he had parred Friday. He hit from nine feet on No. 10, from seven feet on No. 15, from 34 feet on No. 16, from bunker to one foot on No. 17, and generally gave the impression that after a winter sailing sideways, he certainly could be pure Hades on everybody at Augusta in April.

"I need to feel that pressure right now," he said. "I need to get back into the mix and I need to get back into contention and in the final group on Sunday. So I welcome that challenge. I mean, I love that challenge. And I hope to have it more times, especially in the coming five, six weeks, heading into Augusta."

First up: Sunday at Riviera.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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