Phil Mickelson charges toward Northern Trust lead as he breaks out of summer lull

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Phil Mickelson charges toward Northern Trust lead as he breaks out of summer lull

PGA Tour

Phil Mickelson charges toward Northern Trust lead as he breaks out of summer lull

PARAMUS, N.J. – The A.W. Tillinghast course at Ridgewood Country Club is made of grass, sand and dirt with oaks, maples and bushes scattered around the property. On Thursday, Phil Mickelson made it look like it was all smoke and mirrors as he shot a 3-under 68. Penn and Teller would have been proud of Mickelson’s magic act because the five-time major winner hit just three of 14 fairways.

Friday morning, under a cloudless sky and with absolutely no wind, Mickelson began the second round of the Northern Trust by making four birdies in a row. Back-to-back bogeys on his 17th and 18th holes pulled him out of a share of the lead at the Northern Trust, but his second 68 has him in contention to win for the second time this season.

The scores for Mickelson’s first two rounds may be the same, but he earned them in very different ways because off the tee on Friday, Mickelson was a completely different player.

“I hit nine of the first 10 fairways today. It’s how I’ve been driving the last week heading into here,” he said. “I fully expect to do that this weekend, to drive it more like that, and if I do, I’ll be able to make a lot of birdies like I did early on.”

We have marveled at the flops shots, the bunker shots and the other miraculous short game shots that Mickelson has pulled off over the years, but sometimes he does not get enough credit for his ball-striking. Mickelson arrived at this event ranked 16th in strokes gained: approach the green, so when he drives the ball well, the strength of his iron game can emerge and he can make birdies. When his driving is erratic like it was Thursday, his wedges and recovery skills help him salvage pars when he deserves bogeys, but it is much more challenging to make birdies.

Mickelson hit the range to correct his driving on Thursday evening and said the trouble was not serious.

“It was just a fraction off,” Mickelson said. “The path and the plane and so forth of the swing, after a few years, are where I want it. So anything that’s off is going to be a very small adjustment, and it was. I came out today, I hit a lot of good tee shots.”

Mickelson wants to finish the year as strongly as he began it. He won the WGC-Mexico Championship, and a win at The Northern Trust would not only bookend his PGA Tour season nicely, but it would also make him an even bigger lock to get one of the four captain’s picks that U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk will be handing out.

“Usually when I have a bit of a lull in the summer, I play well in the Playoffs,” he said. “So I expect to have a good first two events and try to make it really easy for Captain Furyk.”

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