The position is a place Retief Goosen hasn't been in more than four years. The feeling? Probably longer.
"I'm excited," Goosen said.
Few players are more unflappable than the 46-year-old South African. He wasn't the least bit flustered when he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole at Southern Hills to blow a chance at winning the 2001 U.S. Open. He just showed up for work the next day and beat Mark Brooks in a playoff. Goosen kept his poker face at Shinnecock Hills three years later when a putting performance for the ages won him another U.S. Open over Phil Mickelson.
And nothing changed Friday at Riviera, at least on the outside.
Cool as ever, Goosen won another battle against tough Riviera and holed a 30-foot birdie putt on his final hole for a 1-under 70 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the Northern Trust Open.
His last 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour was in 2010 at the Bridgestone Invitational. Goosen wasn't aware of that.
"It's been such a long time since I've last been in contention," he said. "Who knows how my game is going to hold up? But I'm feeling good. My back is feeling great. So if the nerves can hold, just continue to make good golf swings and make a few good putts, who knows?"
One thing was clear. It won't be easy.
Goosen was at 6-under 136, and while there were references to how firm, fast Riviera was starting to resemble a U.S. Open, consider the numbers. Not since the Quicken Loans National last summer has a score that high led after 36 holes on the PGA Tour. And that was held at Congressional, site of three U.S. Opens.
Graham DeLaet of Canada had a 67 to match the low score of the second round. That put him one shot behind along with Ryan Moore (68) and 21-year-old rookie Justin Thomas, who made three big par saves on his final nine that felt just as good as the 5-iron into 8 feet for eagle on No. 1 and his 7-iron to 6 feet for birdie on No. 2.
Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera — one of those majors was a U.S. Open at Oakmont — had a 68 despite two bogeys on his last three holes. The big Argentine was only two shots behind on a course that has everyone's attention.
"You can't fake it around this place. It's pure golf," DeLaet said. "There's just no let up on the golf course and you have to hit quality shots all the way around."
Goosen said he wasn't nervous, just excited to be atop the leaderboard again, fighting for shots that matter. His last victory was nearly six years ago at Innisbrook, arguably the toughest track on the Florida swing.
"I struggled, but I was fighting," he said. "I was working hard out there, keeping my score together and hopefully, this weekend it's going to be the same. It's going to be a grind out there. It's not going to be easygoing."
Defending champion Bubba Watson (69), Spieth and J.B. Holmes (69) were in the group three shots behind.
Nick Watney became the first player all week to reach 7 under early in the second round, and he was leading when he made the turn and made birdie on the par-5 first hole. He followed with four straight bogeys and shot 74, though he was still in range. Watney was in the large group at 2-under 140 that included Sergio Garcia (69), Vijay Singh (74) and Carlos Ortiz (73).
The rough isn't severe, but it doesn't have to be. The greens are so firm that it's difficult to get it close. Goosen had a sand wedge into the seventh green and it rolled out some 35 feet.
"It's just tough to have birdie chances that are reasonable on this golf course right now," Moore said. "The greens are so firm and so bouncy. I hit a handful of what I would say are as good of shots as I could possibly hit the last couple days and ended up with 45-footers."
Spieth was excited, too, and the 21-year-old Texan shows it a little more than Goosen. Spieth tied for seventh in the Phoenix Open and at Pebble Beach, though both times he spent all week chasing and was never really a serious threat. This time, he goes into the weekend only three shots behind.
"I'm hitting it and putting it well enough to win," Spieth said. "So I'm very pleased — a great opportunity, only three back going into the weekend. That's the best opportunity I've had all year so far."
For Goosen, even longer.