Golf

Donald focused as he begins 2013

Luke Donald sits two shots off the lead halfway through the Northern Trust Open.
GolfWeek Alex Miceli
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LOS ANGELES

Five Things to note from the second round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera:

1. Donald at ease at No. 3

The last time Luke Donald was out of the top three in the Official World Golf Ranking was when he left Los Angeles on a Friday night after missing the cut in the 2011 Northern Trust Open.

LURKING LUKE

Northern Trust Open leaders might be looking over their shoulders with Luke Donald only two back.

Ranked ninth when he arrived at the next event in the Tucson area (Marana, for those familiar with Arizona), Donald went on to capture the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and move to third in the world, the highest ranking of his career at the time.

The next six events on the PGA Tour saw Donald make a run that included six finishes in the top 10, including a playoff loss at The Heritage to Brandt Snedeker. But it was a playoff win over Lee Westwood at the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour that propelled Donald into the No. 1 spot in the world for the remainder of the 2011 season.

“I think not many people would have ever thought that a golfer like me in this day and age would have ever been able to get to No. 1 in the world,” Donald said Friday after a second-round, 5-under-par 66 that put him squarely in the mix, two shots off the lead of Sang-Moon Bae and Fredrik Jacobson. “But once I did and I stayed there for a pretty good period of time, obviously, I think people took notice, and looked into why, how I did it, and what were kind of my secrets of getting there.”

Donald stayed in the top spot until the 2012 Honda Classic, losing his top standing to Rory McIlroy. But one week later in Tampa, Fla., Donald wrestled the top spot back from McIlroy. Over the next 12 events, Donald and McIlroy passed the top spot back and forth like a hot potato before Donald eventually fell to third in the world in August after the BMW Championship.

But that was then. The Donald of today is barely interested in the top spot.

“Not really,” Donald said about if he was interested in attaining the No. 1 spot again. “I think once you've done it before, it doesn't become the focus so much. My focus needs to be on, obviously, continuing to improve my game every year and, obviously, having more chances in majors and being a bit more competitive in those. That's the thing that's disappointed me over the last few years.”

2. Dry spell

Dustin Johnson has had a fortnight he would like to forget missing the cut at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and now at the Northern Trust Open after a 3-under 69 in his second round. Johnson had won the Pebble Beach event in consecutive years, 2009 and ’10, so missing the cut was a bit unusual — especially since he had won the first event of the 2013 campaign at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

But as he did at Pebble Beach, where he started out poorly with an opening-round 73 and could not claw his way back for the Saturday cut, Johnson started with a 5-over 76 in Los Angeles and needed a miracle to get to the 2-over cut line.

Johnson had not missed consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour since the end of 2008 when he failed to play the weekend at the Frys.com Open and the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. Since his win at Hyundai, Johnson has broken par only three times and has a scoring average of 71.9 in the 10 rounds since he won in Hawaii.

With the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship up next, Johnson is not in danger of missing three consecutive cuts. But if he doesn’t go far next week in Tucson you have to wonder what happened to the Johnson that won in Hawaii just two months ago?

3. So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Since 2000, the 36-hole leader has won only three times, if you throw out Adam Scott’s playoff win in a 36-hole shortened event in 2005: Mike Weir in 2004, Rory Sabbatini in 2006 and Phil Mickelson in 2008. So that bodes well for all those chasing Bae and Jacobson.

However, in the same time period, the biggest deficit that anyone has come back from is six shots in 2003, when Weir won his first two of Northern Trust Opens when he ran down Charles Howell III. Last year, Bill Haas was four back of Mickelson before winning in a playoff, and Kirk Triplett was also four back of Greg Chalmers and Bob Tway in 2000 and went on to win.

LEADERBOARD

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With the current leaderboard, six back brings 28 players into the mix, and at four back the list of potential winners shrinks to just 12 players. But the more likely scenario is three back or less, which has happened six times since 2000.

In that limited situation, only eight players are in the hunt: Westwood, Webb Simpson, Charl Schwartzel, Donald, John Rollins, John Merrick, Jacobson and Bae — none of which have won at Riviera before.

4. That darn 10th

Mickelson has played in the Northern Trust at Riviera 13 times, won twice and had two runner-up finishes at the course he claimed early in his career he didn’t like.

During that period, starting back in 1988, Mickelson has pretty much owned the par-4 10th hole. Lefty has recorded 21 birdies, 16 pars and only six bogeys, and is 15 under in that stretch. Only once has he been over par on the hole for the tournament (1993). In fact, Mickelson birdied the 10th both days in 1988 when he missed the cut.

So to see a double-bogey 6 on the card on the 315-yard hole makes you wonder if the golfing gods are against Mickelson this week.

After making the turn at 3 under, Mickelson stood on the 10th tee thinking birdie and getting in the mix, but misfortune was the order of the day on the hole that Mickelson had birdied on Thursday.

“I hit a drive way left and hit it in some of the trees there;” Mickelson said of his tee shot at the 10th. “I hit somebody, kind of fatted it into the chipping area. And the chipping area is so tight, I couldn't get a wedge underneath it, bladed across the green in the bunker. Hit a bunker shot to 6 feet and missed it."

TEE IT UP

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It doesn’t get any matter of fact than that. In hindsight, Mickelson talked about the safe route he could have taken that would have saved him a shot, but it's Mickelson.

“I could have putted it 25 feet to the side,” Mickelson said of one of his options. “Looking back, it would have saved me a shot but that's not really how I like to play.”

Truer words were never spoken.

5. Short shots

• The cut came at 2-over 144, with 79 players making it to the weekend.

• Last year on the Web.com Tour, James Hahn missed three of his four cuts to start the season. He has made his first six cuts on the PGA Tour this season.

• Northern Trust Open exemption recipient Jeremiah Wooding (brother of the 2010 recipient) birdied the final two holes at twilight to shoot 5 under on the day and is 1 under for the tournament (tied for 37th).

• The Northern Trust Open field includes four of the top-five players in the current FedEx Cup standings. Only Mickelson made the cut. Brian Gay, Johnson and Russell Henley all missed.

Tagged: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sang-Moon Bae, John Merrick, Fredrik Jacobson, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, John Rollins

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