LOS ANGELES (AP) - This is the kind of golf Phil Mickelson envisioned playing at the start of the year.
Mickelson said he was having great practice sessions at home with little to show for it on the scorecard until it all came together last week at Pebble Beach. He shot a flawless 64 in the final round _ 11 shots better than playing partner Tiger Woods _ and rallied from six shots behind for a win that he thought might change his fortunes.
Four days later, from Pebble Beach to Riviera, he might be right.
Mickelson made a long birdie putt, hit driver off the fairway to become the only player to reach the 587-yard 11th hole into the wind, and finished by chipping in for birdie from behind the 18th green.
It gave him a 5-under 66 and a one-shot lead Thursday in the Northern Trust Open.
Thirty players had to return Friday morning to complete the first round, typical of a tournament that has a 144-man field despite limited daylight this time of the year off Sunset Boulevard.
"I felt very confident at the start of the year because I had played eight to 10 rounds exactly like Sunday's final round," Mickelson said. "I felt like I was so amped up and ready to start the season that I came out and played three terrible tournaments. And my confidence took a little bit of a hit.
"To come back and play the way I know I can play, it gets my confidence right back to where I was starting the season."
Not surprisingly, his position on the leaderboard is where it was Sunday at Pebble.
Mickelson had a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, who ran off four straight birdies late in his round, and J.B. Holmes, who is picking up more strength in his fourth tournament back from brain surgery last September.
Jonathan Byrd had a 68, notable because he played in the morning when the air was chilly and the eucalyptus trees were shaking with gusts that reached 20 mph, making Riviera so tough that only seven of the 72 players from the morning wave broke par.
Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, also played in the morning and was pleased with a 70.
"It was freezing, blowing a gale and it was not easy," Donald said. "This course is tough with benign conditions, so with the added wind and the greens _ they're fast. They seemed a little bit faster than usual."
Mickelson, meanwhile, keeps right on rolling.
Dating to the back nine of his second round at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Mickelson has made birdie or eagle on one-third of the holes he has played. And his streak of consecutive holes without a bogey finally ended at 49 on the par-3 16th.
After an easy birdie on the par-5 opening hole _ it plays to a lower average than the par-5 18th, which also was into the wind _ Mickelson holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the long par-3 fourth hole, and then he really got going on the back nine.
After a tough pitch to 12 feet that led to birdie on the 10th, Mickelson had 297 yards to the hole on the 11th and decided to hit driver, a shot he had not tried in months.
It came off perfectly and climbed onto the front edge of the green, making Mickelson the only player to have an eagle putt on the 587-yard hole, which played right into the wind. The pin was all the way back, away from a large hump in the putting surface, which gave Mickelson the green light.
His eagle putt from 60 feet died next to the hole.
"I didn't think it was going to necessarily be reachable into that wind, but I was able to hit a low drive off the tee that scooted along the ground, and I felt like if I could hit one more of those with a driver I could get right up by the green," Mickelson said. "I felt like it was worth the risk to try to scoop one up."
The chip-in from behind the 18th was a bonus.
Mickelson made his lone bogey when his chip behind the 16th green ran 7 feet past the cup, and he missed the putt. On the 17th, his wedge rolled back to 7 feet for birdie, but the putt slid by on the left.
He faced another quick chip on the 18th, but it dropped in with perfect speed.
"It wasn't one I was really trying to make," he said. "It was quick, it was downhill, and I had to play about four or five feet of break, so it's not one that you're trying to get aggressive with. I was trying to get good speed and try to let it feed with the break, and I got fortunate, obviously, that it went in."
Holmes was the first player to reach 5 under, and that's where his fun began _ consecutive bogeys when he failed to get up-and-down from just short of the green; a tap-in birdie at the par-3 sixth, with the pin below the bunker in the middle of the green; an 18-foot birdie on the seventh, a three-putt double bogey on the eighth and the birdie at the end.
He has struggled with a slight loss of power since brain surgery in September, and he even topped a shot in Phoenix a few weeks ago. But it's all starting to come together.
"I feel like each week my swing has definitely gotten a little bit better and improved a little bit," Holmes said. "My swing speed has slowly come back a little bit being out here and playing this much."
This will be the last event for Mickelson until the Florida swing, the traditional start of the road to the Masters.
He can't wait.
"I'm excited about the upcoming event," he said of Riviera, "especially heading into our biggest event in April."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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