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Stricker takes big lead at Riviera

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Steve Stricker had quite the Hollywood experience during a night out from the Northern Trust Open.

He went to a Lakers game Friday and spent more time watching the stars than players. Denzel Washington in the parking lot. Jack Nicholson courtside, along with George Lopez and one of the Kardashian sisters (he looked it up on the Internet — it was Khloe).

In unexpected sunshine Saturday afternoon at Riviera, Stricker was the star of his own show.

With an impeccable display of wedges and putting during a pivotal stretch in the middle of his round, Stricker turned a one-shot deficit into a five-shot lead in the Northern Trust Open before darkness halted the third round as he faced a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole.

"I did a lot of good things," said Stricker, who was at 14-under par.

The clubhouse leaders were Luke Donald, who shot a bogey-free 66, and J.B. Holmes, who made one final birdie to finish his 67. They were at 9-under 204, tied with Andres Romero, who was 9 under and in the final group with Stricker.

Stricker wasn't sure how big his lead had grown, nor did he care. All that mattered was returning to Riviera at 7 a.m. Sunday to finish off the third round, and trying to keep hitting the shots that put him in this position.

The tournament caught a huge break with the weather. A storm system off the California coast managed to dodge Riviera in the afternoon, leaving mostly sunny conditions and allowing for enough play that the tournament is expected to end Sunday.

"I've got to prepare myself for a long day, and it's going to be tough," Stricker said.

He was the runner-up last year at Riviera, and a victory Sunday would be enough to put him at No. 2 in the world if Phil Mickelson does not finish in the top five. Mickelson shot a 71 and was 10 shots behind.

George McNeill had a 66 and was at 8 under, along with Dustin Johnson, who finished his second round Saturday morning by chipping in for birdie on the 18th hole for a one-shot lead.

A day after some players couldn't reach the 18th green with a 3-wood, Johnson flew a 9-iron over the green and deep into the soggy turf. After a free drop, he chipped in for birdie to complete a 67 and take a one-shot lead.

But that didn't last long.

Johnson hooked his tee shot into the deep grass well left of the third fairway and never found it. He had to return to the tee to play his third shot, scrambled for a double bogey and it rattled him. He missed a 6-foot par putt on the fourth, had to scramble for pars, then missed a 5-foot par putt on the ninth to fall farther behind.

Stricker, meanwhile, was practically flawless. During a seven-hole stretch in the middle of his round, Stricker gave himself birdie chances inside 15 feet on six holes.

"It was a key stretch," Stricker said. "Stress-less would be the word. Is that a word?"

He made from 15 feet on the sixth and from just inside 10 feet on the eighth, after hitting into the ditch splitting the fairways. The exception came on the ninth, where Stricker drove into the left bunker and faced such a steep lip that he could only blast out to the fairway. From 123 yards, his wedge settled 8 feet away and he made it for par.

Then, he showed remarkable patience on the most intriguing hole at Riviera, the 298-yard 10th. There were three groups waiting, and while killing the time, Stricker was asked how he likes to play the hole. This was right after Justin Rose, in the group ahead, hit driver to a perfect opening just short of the green.

"I hit hybrid as far left as I can," Stricker said. "See where Justin hit it? That's perfect. I guess that's why some guys like to hit driver here. But if you miss it any direction, you're going to have problems."

Moments later, Stricker hit hybrid to the left side of the fairway, giving him an open at the full length of the diagonal green. From there, he hit a 53-degree wedge that covered the flag and spun slightly back to inches a way.

It was a textbook birdie on a tricky little hole.

Then again, most of his round turned into an exhibition of keeping the ball in play, hitting his irons where he was looking and rarely flirting with danger while seizing command of the tournament.

Trying to become the first player to win three straight years at Riviera, Mickelson charged up his gallery by holing a 20-foot eagle putt to start his third round. But he missed three straight birdie chances inside 15 feet, dumped a wedge from behind the 10th green into a bunker for a bogey and couldn't keep pace.

The best part for Donald was finishing, meaning extra sleep Saturday night. He also likes his position, although it is daunting with a player of Stricker's caliber five shots clear.

"I would have thought I'd need to shoot something very low tomorrow to have any chance," Donald said. "I'll be trying to play the course more than anything, and hopefully post a low number and see if it's good enough. But if Steve plays nicely, it's sort of in his hands."

DIVOTS: Scott Verplank shot a 65, important as he tries to move up in the world ranking and qualify for the 64-man Match Play Championship in two weeks. One more solid round should be enough. ... Stephen Ames was among seven players who did not return to complete the second round Saturday morning. Ames was the only one still with a chance to make the cut. He was 1 over, and the cut was made at 2 over. ... Because more than 78 players made the cut (81), there was a 54-hole cut to top 70 and ties. Among those who missed out was David Duval, who followed his opening 68 with rounds of 75-76.