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Retief Goosen stays on top at Riviera

Goosen shoots a 70 in the second round of the Northern Trust Open and leads by one

Retief Goosen can't be sure what to make of "holding" the 36-hole lead at the Northern Trust Open.

Maybe "grasping" is a better word. This, in some ways, is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the golf world.

"It's been a long time since I've been in contention," Goosen said. "Who knows how my game is going to hold up?"

Goosen shared the first-round lead, at five under par, with five other players, including 51-year-old Vijay Singh.

Singh, as any chiropractor could have predicted, faded a bit Friday with a three-over 74.

Goosen did not.

The 46-year-old South African scratched and scrambled in tough conditions to his well-earned, one-under 70.

A birdie on his last hole, the par-four ninth, which played the toughest (4.4 average) among all 18 on Friday, pushed him to six under overall and the top spot on the leaderboard.

Goosen enters the weekend with a one-shot lead over Ryan Moore, Canada's Graham DeLaet and Justin Thomas.

Who can explain these things?

Goosen is a two-time U.S. Open champion but has not won an event since the 2009 Transitions Championship.

"It's exciting to be up there again," he said. "I struggled, but was fighting. I was working hard out there, keeping my score together."

Goosen hemmed a bit when it was suggested he is playing well because Riviera Country Club is playing like a U.S. Open course this week.

He wasn't dismissive because the statement wasn't true. Several other players mentioned the U.S. Open-like conditions that had taken over Riviera, which, once again, is standing its ground against advances in golf technology and physical fitness.

Is it a shock that Angel Cabrera, only two shots back at four under, is also a former U.S. Open champion? Cabrera won in 2007 at Oakmont Country Club, on a brutally difficult course. His winning score was five over par.

Jim Furyk, another former U.S. Open winner, is five shots back at the Northern Trust.

Goosen was hesitant to make the leap because the last of his U.S. Open wins came in 2004, when he was in his prime.

It was too many days ago, perhaps, to connect those dots.

Goosen knows it takes four rounds, not two, to pass this sort of a survival test. At this point, he doesn't want to look too far down a scoreboard that boasts several viable weekend party crashers.

Five players sit at three under, including defending champion Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth.

Watson followed his one-under opening round with a two-under 69, while Spieth followed his two-under 69 with a one-under 70.

There is a potential showdown brewing between Thomas and Spieth, two of the tour's bright young talents.

Both are 21 and seem ready to occupy the PGA superstar vacuum.

Spieth got the head start on tour, rocket-launching out of the University of Texas to early stardom. Spieth has already risen to No. 9 in the world rankings.

Thomas, from the University of Alabama, is a tour rookie looking to make his first mark.

The players are friends, and rivals, and have a history at Riviera. It was here, in 2012, that Spieth's Texas team bested Thomas' Alabama squad to win the NCAA championship.

Spieth only reminds Thomas every three or four minutes.

It was Spieth's instant success on the PGA Tour that inspired Thomas to go out his own.

Thomas is a big hitter and already cock-sure for his size, about 140 pounds. He doesn't think he should ever miss a PGA Tour cut and has been brooding about his recent miss at the Farmers Insurance Open.

This week is more what he envisioned.

"I'm having a blast," Thomas said of his rebound.

Thomas is not yet king of any hill, although he's getting closer to the crown. Friday, after signing his scorecard for a 69, he stood outside Riviera's cliff-top clubhouse, taking in the rarefied view.

He scribbled a few autographs on the visors of kids only a few years his junior. Many fans, though, walked right past Thomas.

It might not be that way in a year, or maybe after Sunday.

Spieth already talks like a grizzled tour veteran.

After all, he figures he has played Riviera more times than any course on tour (four). He played last year and shot eight under, good for a tie for 12th.

"The course is playing similar to a major championship," Spieth said.

This is the fourth straight tournament for Spieth, though, and he said he's starting to feel it. He said he needs to cut down on his in-between practice schedule.

You know how it is on your body when you go from 20 to 21.

"This one, I'm fatigued," he said. "My legs kind of feel like Jell-O right now….I think that's a little something to learn from. But I'll have plenty of adrenaline with me these last couple rounds."

The weekend has a lot to offer, from old guys to the young dudes.

Thomas might have read in a history book that Ben Hogan won the only U.S. Open played at Riviera, in 1948.

From what he's heard from others, though, he can say "this is very U.S. Open-like."

Halfway through 72 holes, what's not to like?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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