Round of 64 has Mickelson seeded No. 1

Times Staff Writer

Phil Mickelson, the pilot, seemingly had his golf game on auto-pilot Friday.

He shot a seven-under-par 64 at Riviera Country Club to seize a four-shot lead at the Northern Trust Open.

Mickelson is 10-under 132 through 36 holes and it might take a relay team to catch him. Robert Allenby, who won the rain-drenched, then-Nissan Open in 2001, and Jeff Quinney are four shots back at six-under 136 while five players remain in the vapor trail at five-under 137.

One of those is feel-good story Scott McCarron, a former UCLA Bruin, who missed all of the 2007 season after undergoing elbow surgery in 2006.

McCarron could have almost walked out of Riviera on his hands Friday after shooting a six-under 65.

"There was a long time I wasn't sure if I could ever come back," McCarron said.

Mickelson knew it might be a good day when, on the par-five first, he hit a three-iron about 250 yards to within 12 feet of the pin. He two-putted for an easy birdie and forged merrily on from there.

Mickelson has played 10 previous events at Riviera without hoisting a trophy. He wants to win this tournament almost as much as he wants to win any tournament.

"Well," Mickelson said, "I haven't won the U.S. or British Open either, and I really want to win those."

Second-round play was suspended at 5:48 p.m. with six players left on course, but that had no real impact on the fact Mickelson was heading into today with a serious chance to win Sunday.

Of course, Mickelson shared the 36-hole lead last year with Padraig Harrington before losing in a playoff to Charles Howell III.

Sometimes in golf you have to be lucky and good, and Mickelson thus far this week at Riviera has been both.

He caught the calmest conditions both days. He shot a three-under 68 in the relative stillness of Thursday morning before brisk afternoon winds blew a lot of players off course.

They switch tee times in the second round in the effort to even things out, but this week the golf gods weren't playing along.

On Friday, the wind blew in the morning before calming in the afternoon.

Mickelson's group teed off at 12:12 on Friday.

"The early/late tee times had a huge advantage this week," Mickelson confessed. "I mean, all of the scores that are any good, 90% of them are from the early/late wave. We avoided wind yesterday morning. It died down this afternoon. We just got very lucky."

Thursday's morning scoring average was 71.28 compared to 73.51 in the afternoon. Friday's morning average was 73.78 with final afternoon results pending the completion of second-round play.

It wasn't a good second day for the first-round Korean stars. K.J. Choi followed his first-round 65 with a two-over 73, and Kevin Na followed his 66 with a 76.

But what of this guy McCarron?

He followed his first-round 72 with a sizzling 65 to emerge as one of this event's unlikeliest challengers.

McCarron is playing this year on a "major medical extension carryover" after missing a year and a half following elbow surgery in August 2006.

McCarron, a three-time winner on tour, returned this year and needed three straight birdies to make the cut at this year's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. After that, he missed his next three cuts before this week's event.

McCarron, 42, now resides in Reno but once attended UCLA, only a few miles away in Westwood, and often played Riviera. McCarron's wife and three daughters flew into town Friday to see his round while McCarron said about 30 of his college friends were in attendance.

McCarron held the final-round lead at the Nissan Open in 2002 but faltered on the back nine and finished in a three-way tie for second behind winner Len Mattiace.

After years on the road-weary golf circuit, McCarron spent his elbow recovery time playing "Mr. Dad" to his family.

"Oh yeah," McCarron said. "I went on parent field trips and volunteered at school and helped coach soccer and drove my daughter to drama and acting class all the time."

Time off, too, rekindled McCarron's professional passion.

"I still feel like my best golf is ahead of me," he said. "Just because you're 42 doesn't mean that you have to play bad."

McCarron was good Friday but not as good as Mickelson.

He started the day at three-under par, three shots behind Choi, and then he picked apart Riviera with nine birdies, including a 60-foot putt on No. 5.

Mickelson was seven under overall at the turn and looking to go lower.

He sprayed his three-wood left at the 315-yard, par-four 10th, hitting a spectator on the foot, the ball coming to rest just off the cart path with a palm tree obstructing Mickelson's view to the green.

No problem. Mickelson flopped a wedge to within three feet and made birdie.

Mickelson followed with a birdie at the par-five 11th hole to get to nine under before giving a shot back with a bogey at No. 12 after knocking his second shot into the cavernous, greenside bunker.

After four pars, Mickelson closed with birdies on No. 17 and 18, perhaps serving notice this could be the year he closes the deal at Riviera.

Only Saturday and Sunday stand in his way.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pulling rank

Seventeen of the top 20 golfers in the world rankings are playing at Riviera this week (No. 1 Tiger Woods, No. 4 Ernie Els and No. 13 Henrik Stenson are missing). How they stand after 36 holes, with those expected to miss the cut are shaded:

2. Phil Mickelson

-10

3. Steve Stricker

-2

5. Adam Scott

E

6. Jim Furyk

+7 (miss cut)

7. Justin Rose

+5 (miss cut)

8. Rory Sabbatini

-3

9. K.J. Choi

-4

10. Vijay Singh

+1

11. P. Harrington

-4

12. Sergio Garcia

+3

14. Angel Cabrera

-1

15. Geoff Ogilvy

+4 (miss cut)

16. Zach Johnson

-3

17. Aaron Baddeley

+1

18. Lee Westwood

+10 (miss cut)

19. Luke Donald

-3

20. Trevor Immelman

+5 (miss cut)

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