Mickelson hits form at Riviera

2009-02-20 07:50

Los Angeles - Phil Mickelson got his title defence off to a flying start by firing an eight-under 63 for the clubhouse lead in the opening round of the $6.3 million Northern Trust Open on Thursday.

Mickelson shot a bogey-free round and says he is finally rounding into form after a slow start to the 2009 season.

"It was a good start and I feel like I am back on the right track," Mickelson said. "I felt better with the putter and my short game was as good as it has been."

Mickelson's American compatriot Scott McCarron was second after shooting a seven-under 64. England's Luke Donald, South Korean KJ Choi and Andres Romero of Argentina were in a pack of seven golfers tied for third at 66.

Play was called on Thursday because of darkness with four players still on course. They will finish their first rounds early on Friday.

Mickelson may be hitting his stride just in time as he is seeking to become just the seventh player to win back-to-back titles since this event was first held in 1926.

"It certainly helps having won here last year and played well the year before," he said. "I have a lot of confidence coming into this golf course."

This week's tournament at the Riviera Country Club is the first of two title defences Mickelson will make this season. Later this season, Mickelson will attempt to win the Crowne Plaza Invitational for the second consecutive year.

Mickelson is off to a slow start this season. His best finish so far is a tie for 42nd at the Buick Invitational. He missed the cut at the FBR Open and tied for 55th at last week's Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

"I am driving much better and longer," Mickelson said of his round Thursday. "I was trying a little bit different shafts with some of my irons and wasn't quite matching up the way I would like to. So I went back to my set from last year and tried to eliminate the variables."

The Riviera event features 29 of the world's top 50 ranked golfers. Japanese teen sensation Ryo Ishikawa, who is ranked 67th, is hoping to crack the top 50 barrier soon.

Ishikawa, who is making his North American professional debut this week, got off to a modest start Thursday by shooting a two-over 73.

"I had been nervous for 18 holes, from the first hole to No 18," Ishikawa said. "I feel like my body has been stiff all day."

Heading into this event, the 17-year-old from Saitama said his goal was to make the cut, something Tiger Woods failed to do when he made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur at the same tournament 17 years earlier.

Woods, who announced Thursday that he would return to action next week after an absence of eight months following knee surgery, also played his first PGA Tour tournament at Riviera but as a 16-year-old amateur back in 1992.

In those days it was called the Nissan Open and the winner was Fred Couples.

Couples, the 2009 American President's Cup captain, fired a four-under 67 Thursday in his 27th appearance in this event which for years was known as the Nissan Open.

"I hit the ball solid," Couples said. "I will take four under any day."

Reigning PGA Tour player of the year Padraig Harrington has found the Riviera to his liking in the past but he shot a pedestrian one-over 72 on Thursday. Harrington, who tied for third at the Northern Trust Open last year, went immediately to the practice green after his round and didn't speak to reporters.

Mickelson is hoping to follow Canadian Mike Weir with back-to-back wins at this event.

Weir, who has had more recent success at this event than almost anyone in the field, opened with a one-under 70. Weir won in 2003 and 2004 when he set the 54-hole record with a 196.

Leading scores after the first round of the $6.3 million Northern Trust Open at the Riviera Country Club on Thursday (play halted because of darkness with four players still on course):

63 - Phil Mickelson

64 - Scott McCarron

66 - Dean Wilson, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson, Luke Donald (GBR), Andres Romero (ARG), K.J. Choi (KOR), John Merrick

67 - Fred Couples, Brandt Snedeker, Kevin Na, Tommy Armour, Jeff Klauk, Ryuji Imada (JPN), D.J. Trahan, Todd Hamilton, Kirk Triplett, Briny Baird, Paul Azinger

68 - Tim Clark (RSA), Retief Goosen (RSA), Geoff Ogilvy (AUS), Carl Pettersson (SWE), Rory Sabbatini (RSA)

69 - Jeev M. Singh (IND), Oliver Wilson (GBR), Brendon de Jonge (ZIM), Brian Davis (GBR)

70 - Shigeki Maruyama (JPN), Peter Lonard (AUS), Mike Weir (CAN), Trevor Immelman (RSA), Robert Allenby (AUS), Soren Hansen (DEN), Graeme McDowell (NIR) Charlie Wi (KOR), Richard S. Johnson (SWE)

71 - Stuart Appleby (AUS), Tim Wilkinson (NZL), Nick O'Hern (AUS) Ernie Els (RSA), Stephen Ames (CAN), Aaron Baddeley (AUS), Mathew Goggin (AUS), John Senden (AUS)

72 - Martin Laird (GBR), Padraig Harrington (IRL), Vijay Singh (FIJ), Angel Cabrera (ARG)

73 - Nathan Green (AUS), Jin Park (KOR), Ryo Ishikawa (JPN), Daniel Chopra (SWE)

75 - Alex Cejka (GER), David Morland (CAN)

76 - James Nitties (AUS)