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Phil Mickelson finally gets warmed up in the desert

Phil Mickelson, always the fans' favorite, birdies the last five holes of the second round for a 66

It is not always easy being Phil Mickelson. His tribulations are always on trial.

That was no less the case in the desert Friday, where Mickelson started well down the leaderboard in the Humana Challenge but remained No. 1 in gallery attraction. No surprise there.

Matt Kuchar led the tournament, shooting a dazzling eight-under-par 64 to bring his total to 15 under.

Kuchar is a name player, a tour star. He is ranked 11th in the world rankings, five places ahead of Mickelson. But he has yet to become one of the straws that stirs the drink in pro golf. He also has yet to win five majors, as Mickelson has.

Nevertheless, the year hadn't begun quite the way Mickelson would have designed it, even though the first 31 holes of his season shouldn't matter a lot, in a year in which he will play more than a thousand of them, in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

Thursday, he shot a one-under 71. That's great in the U.S. Open or the British, or on some golf courses where there are more hazards than grass. But this was the traditional Bob Hope, even though it has a different name now. For years, it has been golf's winter solace, a place to play in sunshine and warmth while much of the rest of the country puts logs on the fire and tunes up the snowblowers.

It is a cozy, comfortable start to a season that will be anything but those things very soon.

For the men who make their living playing this game, the Humana courses are easy. For the rest of us, you'd rather pound your fingers with a hammer. Here, these guys get to 20-under and then start thinking about a trophy. Not before that.

So, after his 71, Mickelson was frustrated, but kept it in perspective.

"I'm excited about playing," he said. "Even though this is the worst score I've had in a long time — in months — I can't wait to get started again."

For a while Friday, it looked as if it might be months before he'd get the key turned in the ignition.

It was, again, one of those classic Southern California desert days. No wind. Low 70s. Palm trees perfectly placed for the TV shots. At one point, a little cloud was spotted over Cathedral City, heading east, but the La Quinta Chamber of Commerce sent up a plane to shoo it away.

Mickelson's game was not matching the perfection.

He was a man in black, with a mood to match his outfit. On his first nine holes at the PGA West Nicklaus Private Course, one of three used in this event, he had three birdies and two bogeys. He wasn't swimming, he was treading water.

And when he started his back nine with four pars, it looked as if he might have an extra day, Sunday, with family. They make the cut here after Saturday's third round, when the field is cleared of all but the top amateurs.

Still, as Mickelson thinned his tee shot into the trap on the par-three third hole (he started his round on No. 10), he stayed poised. And even as he hit a tee shot so short on the par-five fourth that he had to lay up — the par fives here are scoring manna from heaven for the pros — he stayed poised.

Both are elements of retaining his superstar personality.

During this, he chatted amiably with both amateurs in his foursome, Doug Band and Stuart Katzoff. Katzoff is a scratch golfer, Band a 16-handicapper. Mickelson treated them both like they were Barack Obama.

Moments after he dumped his tee shot into the trap on No. 3 with an amateur-like shot, he was congratulating Katzoff, the amateur, for hitting the green.

As he walked to the next hole, he stopped to chat with a photographer about an event coming up at Bel Air in April.

"I love Eddie Merrins," he said, of the club's legendary Little Pro.

But his business is playing golf, and suddenly, Phil Mickelson was all business.

Out of nowhere, he birdied the last five holes, finished with a six-under 66, and his seven under for the tournament left him in a tie for 36th place. The top 70 and ties play Sunday.

That's an eight-shot deficit to make up, but when Mickelson starts playing like that, golf is his world and the rest of us — including the other pros — are just visitors in it.

Better than anyone, he knows it, as well as knowing how every little dip in the chart brings out the typists and theorists with microphones to speculate that, at age 44, he is done.

"I'm flattered that there are lots of eyes on me at all times," he said. "The Hope is a wonderful place to start the year. … It is a barometer for me. Great weather. Great conditions.

"The challenge is to be patient. I know my game is sharp, but I have to always look at this as a marathon, not a sprint.

"It took 31 holes to get my game to click. …You gotta go really low here. I think I have a really low one in me."

Even with his late surge Friday, Mickelson's odds of winning here, something he has done twice, are not great.

Still, he is who he is, and while the world constantly puts him on the analyst's couch, he has never lacked talent, drive or confidence, nor the responsibility that comes with that.

"There is no reason why I can't make this the best year of my career," he said.

Had he not made those closing five birdies, he would have said the same thing.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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