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PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Phil Mickelson hits his tee shot on the 12th hole during the third round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 6, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 6, 2010) – Phil Mickelson said Friday night he knew where he was on the leaderboard, seven shots back when he started Saturday morning, and knew he had to go low to get back into serious contention at the Northern Trust Open.

Combined with Friday’s constant drizzle, overnight storms dumped three inches of rain on the course in 24 hours. That meant the field was playing lift, clean and place and firing at greens that were extremely receptive. All of that set up for a go-low day, and Mickelson responded quickly with a long eagle putt on No. 1 that got him to 6 under par for the tournament.

But that momentum was lost over the next three holes where Mickelson was forced to make good par saves after missing the second green, third fairway and fourth green and the third round turned into another one like the first one, when he shot 72.

“I hit a lot of good shots,” said Mickelson, whose Saturday 71 left him at 4-under, 10 shots back. “I just didn’t get anything out of it.”

It’s a cliché, but as you get triter you often get righter. Here’s what it means.

The birdie putt from 13 feet on No. 5 tricked away from the hole in the last three inches. The 6-foot birdie on the par-3 6th was in until it dove right at the very end. A 7-footer on 7 should have gone in, would have, on a day when he was getting anything out of a round. His approach on 9 hit the bank in the green and zipped back downslope 55 feet short; Friday it hit there and hopped to the back, which left him with a 53-foot putt back down to the front.

If those first three putts roll in Mickelson would have been 9-under, way up the board and loving life because he was being rewarded for hitting good shots and putts. It’s not to say the rest of the day would have gone differently or that he could have shot 63, as he did in the third round a year ago. It’s just to say he didn’t get anything, anything at all, out of the first nine except three very good par saves.

A difficult but poor pitch on 10 led to a bogey. An 8-foot putt went in for par on 11. A 10-footer lipped on 12, about the toughest hole on the course. A good shot to the par-3 16th left him with 13 feet of right to left bend and how that putt didn’t go in is still a mystery. In 18 holes he made two par putts and two bogey putts of less than an inch.

“It was one of those days,” said Mickelson. “one of those days when, looking back on it, I wouldn’t do anything different. Good putts would go in instead of break an inch or two in the last roll. But sometimes there’s just not much you can so about it, It’ll all even out.”

Not getting anything out of a round is discouraging for Mickelson but encouraging too. Bad, because an even par round was not what he needed to have any chance to catch Steve Sticker, who led last year’s tournament until he bogeyed 18 and Mickelson birdied 16 and 17 to win by one.

Good, because he really is hitting more fairways and making much better putts than he was for all but a handful of weeks in the last two years. If he wasn’t doing that, this round could have gone south in a hurry Saturday.

“I keep saying I’m not that far off and I mean it,” said Mickelson. “I’m going to go out tomorrow and try to light it up, have a really good round and build a little momentum for the year.”

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  Phil Mickelson his tee shot on the 12th hole during the second round of the Northern Trust Open at Riveria Country Club on February 5, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 5, 2010) – If Phil Mickelson the Elder had any second thoughts when his alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Friday they were allayed by the end of his soggy hike across Riviera Country Club nine hours later.

He had to get up that early to drive about 40 miles to the airport and catch a 30-minute flight with his son to L.A., Van Nuys, actually, because their usual airstrip in Santa Monica was closed. When they arrived at the course at about 6 they were greeted by the start of a shower that would last throughout the day and thoroughly soak the fans who turned up for the second round of the Northern Trust Open.

Phil the Younger’s spirits, buoyed by calls Thursday night to Butch Harmon and Dave Stockton, could not be dampened.

“I felt like I wasn’t far off after yesterday’s round, even though the score didn’t reflect it,” said Mickelson, who followed his 72 with a 6 under par 65. “I had good conversations with Butch and Dave last night, and I think it settled in today. I was able to make the last adjustment and it felt great. I hit the ball much better and putted much better.”

Even after a quick overnight turnaround, Mickelson looked like he was in midseason form, even if it was the rainy season in not-so-sunny California.

Starting on 10, Mickelson birdied 11 and 12 to get to 1-under. Bogeyed 13, birdied 14. Then caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay really went to work.

Mickelson’s drive on 15 looked like it was headed for the right fairway bunker. A half dozen people, including Phil the Elder, poked around in the sand – they found plugged four balls – and the thick kikuyu thatch just above the pit. With seconds to go before the official told them the allotted five minutes to search was up, Bones found the ball buried in the grass. Mickelson hit to just short of the green, then came one roll short of making a birdie chip-in. Without Bones’ find he would have had to struggle to make bogey.

After a birdie on 1, Mickelson banged a drive off the press tent located between the first and second holes. He made an impressive over-the-trees approach to just short of the green but bogeyed to drop to 2-under. His drive on 3 was again 30 yards right of the fairway, though he saved par. Then those adjustments finally “settled in”. He didn’t miss another fairway or green on his way to the house.

A pure 4-iron to 10 feet on the tough par-3 fourth hole brought another birdie. His approach on 5 caromed 25 feet backward off the flagstick; the uphill putt stopped one roll short of another birdie. Mickelson used the slope at the back of the sixth green to draw the ball back to five feet above the hole and he made that for birdie, 4-under.

He made another at 8 after an approach from 143 yards stopped eight feet left of the cup. And on nine, 53 feet above the hole, Mickelson put most of his back to the target and putted to the right side of the green, where it took a turn, broke about 20 feet left and narrowly missed the hole. He made the 5-foot par putt and moved from a share of 83rd into a share of 9th with the afternoon wave just getting started.

It was truly mid-season stuff, an impressively quick U-turn from last week’s season-opener in San Diego where he was “hitting it all over the place” and Thursday’s scratchy round.

“I’ll probably end up 15th to 20th after two rounds,” he said afterward, “but I’m in a position where with a good round tomorrow I can get in contention for Sunday, so that’s where I wanted to get myself.”

He also got himself a later tee time, which meant Phil Mickelson the Elder could sleep in a little bit longer on Saturday morning.

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 6, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 4, 2010) – Thursday was a tough day at the office for Phil Mickelson. The theme was established early Thursday as Mickelson went in search of a record third-straight Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club, .

His drive on the par-5 first hole landed on a sprinkler just off the left side of the fairway. He took a one-club drop into the fairway. Good omen. His approach from 178 yards stopped 17 feet behind the hole. Another good omen. And then his eagle try rolled around the right edge. Bad memory.

Sunday in San Diego he couldn’t buy a putt that broke into the hole instead off the edge. This would be another of those days.

There is a difference, though, between this year and last. In just two events he hasn’t regained the putting stroke tweaked by Dave Stockton last fall, the one that carried him to impressive season-ending wins at the Tour Championship in Atlanta and HSBC Champions outside Shanghai. But he is putting with a boldness that was missing for much of last year, the Northern Trust and Doral being the glaring exceptions in 2009 before he met with Stockton. No coincidence those were two of his wins.

At times last year, with his stance narrower and hands lower, he was tentative, and missed putts because of speed and line. His biggest miss last week came from across the 18th green one day when he ran the ball six feet past the cup, but he made that for birdie. As his putt on the first hole foretold, this would not be one of those good scoring days.

After a careless miss of a short putt on the on the fifth he was back to par and he stayed there with a right-rough, right-bunker approach to 4 feet for a save and then the tide turned. He drained a 25-foot birdie on 8, a 10-foot birdie on 10 after finding the front bunker and two-putted the par-5 11th.

“I was 3-under with a chance to make a couple more coming in,” he said afterward. At the end of play 3-under would have put him in a share of 10th place four shots off the lead.

But then he missed a 2-foot par putt on 12, his approach from a thin lie in the sand on 15 rolled 18 feet past and he missed that for par, his 55-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th stopped seven feet above the hole and he missed that, he got one back with an 8-footer on 17 but then yet again hit the hole, but not the bottom of it, from 7 feet on 18 for a final bogey.

I had it right there and I let it go,” said a clearly dispirited Mickelson. “It really wasn’t a good round.”

It was a 1-over par 72 on a course where his average score over the previous three years was 67 and it left him mired in a share of 83rd place.

He plays again with Adam Scott and Robert Allenby at 7:34 Friday morning after a very brief overnight at home in Rancho Santa Fe, a 30-minute flight from an airport near Riviera.

“We’ll have greens without footprints and a chance to get something going early,” he said, looking forward as usual to another day at the office, the next one a better one.

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 4: Phil Mickelson signs autographs outside the scoring area during the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 4, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 3, 2010) – Phil Mickelson prepped for his two-time title defense of the Northern Trust Open Tuesday with a round of golf with friends at another Los Angeles course. That night he attended a PGA Tour players meeting at Riviera Country Club.

It was a regularly scheduled event but the primary topic was the groove issue that has embroiled the Tour since last week. Mickelson was one of several players who put a Ping Eye 2 wedge in play. In his case it was to experiment with the club, but also to expose a loophole in the rules pertaining to golf clubs. That wedge is approved by the USGA and Tour despite not conforming to the current standards. In San Diego Scott McCarron called it, “cheating,” that the players who used the wedge “should be ashamed,” and that “Phil should be one of the guys stepping up and saying this is wrong.”

After being stabbed in the back last Thursday, Wednesday morning Mickelson buried the hatchet.

“Scott came up to me and sincerely apologized,” he said. “We all make mistakes and say things we wish we could take back. I’ve done it a bunch in my career. It’s also not easy to come up and face that person, look him in the eye and apologize. He did that and he was sincere. I appreciate him being a big enough man to do that.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said, “With respect to a particular player that used a particularly unfortunate choice of words . . . there is no justification . . . but the reaction was stronger than it could have been had we more intensely last year got in front of players with the details of this rule.”

While Mickelson was conciliatory toward McCarron, he underscored his contempt for the way the new standards have been implemented by the USGA and followed by the Tour, two of golf’s governing bodies.

“It’s killing the sport.” Mickelson said of the ambiguity he feels the USGA has allowed to exist. “It’s killing the manufacturers and the players. We don’t understand the rule and it needs to be changed.”

Finchem said that the Tour will begin to explore the process of disallowing use of the pre-1990 Ping clubs by use of a local rule. It is a cumbersome process that will not have anything resolved soon. But last week John Solheim, the president of Karsten Manufacturing, which makes Pings and came to the agreement with the bodies in the early ‘90s, said he would be open to discussion with the USGA and the Tour.

Mickelson is not using the offending wedge this week at Riviera.

“I like and respect these players,” said Mickelson, who lauded them for their show of support last year after Amy’s breast cancer announcement. “Out of respect for them I do not want to have and advantage whether it’s perceived or actual. My point has been made.”

But he also said, “If these governing bodies cannot get together to fix this loophole, if players stop using this wedge, which would stop the pressing of this issue, then I will relook at it and put the wedge back in play. I hope the governing bodies get forced into changing their rule-making process. I hope there’s more transparency among the governing bodies.”

And then he went out onto the range to warm up for his pro-am round and enjoy a sunny afternoon on a course where he’s won for the last two years.

LA JOLLA, CA - JANUARY 31: Phil Mickelson stretches on the 12th tee on the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open on January 31, 2010 in La Jolla, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO (Jan. 30, 2010) – Thursday was anxious Phil. Friday was struggling Phil. Saturday at the Farmers Insurance Open was it was Old Phil, playing from the trees, brilliant around the greens and moving up the leaderboard. It was a hold-on-to-your-hat 70 that left him at 9 under par for the tournament, four shots off the lead and playing in the third-last group on Sunday.

With all that going on it was easy for Mickelson to put aside what might have been a major distraction, the media fallout from Scott McCarron’s assertion that Mickelson was “cheating” by using an approved but non-conforming club.

Asked about all of that again on Saturday, Mickelson repeatedly said, “We all have our opinions on the matter but a line was crossed. After being publicly slandered I’ll let other people handle it.”

After hitting one of the first eight fairways and four of the last six, he left the course hoping to get some help from Butch Harmon, too. He had a text from his star pupil before Mickelson left the scoring trailer at Torrey Pines South.

“It’s disappointing because I was hitting it so well coming in here I was ready to start two weeks ago,” said Mickelson. “I think I was a little anxious, a little amped up, trying to hit it too hard. My timing and rhythm were off. It’s not far off and I think I can fix it.”

Saturday had it all: a par save from so far left of No. 4 that another few feet and he would have been playing his second from Black’s Beach, 300 feet below. And another on 18, where his second from the light left rough found the water fronting the green but after a spinning pitch he made an 8-foot putt.

There was the double bogey on 7 after his drive stayed in a massive eucalyptus tree and could not be identified, followed by a another drive that was slightly longer and wider left of the fairway.

There were the three birdies, two on par-5s thanks to his short game and one on 15 where for only the second time in the round he hit the fairway and green on the same hole in regulation. And there was the eagle on the long 13th. The really long 13th. There he hit the day’s longest drive, 324 yards to the heart of the fairway and a 269-yard 3-wood to 9 feet hole-high left.

“I’d been blocking everything so bad I was aiming way right, in the middle of the green,” said a grinning Mickelson, whose ball still ended up left, just above a rough-covered slope. “Turned out I pushed it just perfectly.”

So he scraped it around Torrey Pines again, this time having more fun, more luck, and, as he’d hoped after Thursday’s 70 left him in 40th place, continuing to build into the weekend. He was six shots and 39 players behind the leader that evening; Sunday morning he’ll be four back with just four guys four guys in front of him.

“If I throw in something in the mid- to high-60s,” he said, “I think I have a very good chance.”