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LOS ANGELES – It's all about scoring for Luke Donald this week at Riviera. There have been a few steals along the way, from that flop shot behind the 10th green that dropped in for eagle in the first round, and chipping in twice for birdies in the second.
So maybe it really does pay off to hang out with Michael Jordan.
Donald made it clear that he's not "working" with the NBA great. Jordan has a house in south Florida not far from where Donald lives half the year, and they play plenty of golf at The Bear's Club. Both have Chicago roots — Donald winning an NCAA title at Northwestern, Jordan winning six NBA titles with the Bulls.
"His fiancée and my wife are good friends and we hang out a bit," Donald said Friday after a 66 thrust him into contention at the Northern Trust Open, two shots behind the co-leaders, Fredrik Jacobson and Sang-Moon Bae, going into the weekend in his first tournament in more than two months.
"It's great just to be around someone that was arguably the greatest of all time in his sport," he said. "Just to see how he reacts, his demeanor, see his attitude towards things. It's been nice just to spend a little bit of time with him."
Jordan loves to play golf. Donald loves taking money off him. He gives Jordan about six shots a side, and Jordan wants (and probably needs) more. Jordan has had the golf bug for a long time, and he was at Medinah last September when the Europeans rallied from a four-point deficit on Sunday to win the Ryder Cup.
"In no way am I working with Michael at all," Donald said with a laugh.
Still, the time together can't hurt.
"I try to pick up things from just watching him," Donald said. "I ask him some questions and he gives me answers sometimes. Certainly, it's not like a working relationship. It's just nice to have access to someone that was that great at his sport."
If there's any advice that Jordan has imparted, it's for Donald to play within himself, to not get caught up in distance, to play to his strengths. Donald already has that figured out, which is why he rose to No. 1 in the world, a spot he held as recently as six months ago.
Rory McIlroy is No. 1 now, and Tiger Woods is trying to close that gap.
The opening two rounds of Riviera suggest, however, that Donald is not willing to ride the bench. He still hasn't won a major, and it seems that being forgotten in the rush to anoint McIlroy has made him work even harder.
The last time he played was Thanksgiving week in Dubai, though he didn't put the clubs away for good. Donald kept working on his short game, and it has showed.
Typically in golf, when someone returns from a long break, it's the short game that is the last to come around. When he finally got back to work, Donald went out to The Bear's Club and shot 66 without even thinking.
In this case, his long game has been a bit suspect, the errors glossed over by his superb wedge play and putting.
"Happy with my score, obviously, coming off a pretty good break," Donald said. "You never know how you're going to deal with being back in competition again, but certainly a big improvement today, and my short game has been very sharp. I've been excited about that. It's been a big key to my score so far. Excited to be in the mix again."
Join the crowd.
Bae birdied his first four holes Friday morning and never stopped until his name was atop the leaderboard after a 65. Jacobson played in the afternoon, when the wind mercifully stayed away, and had birdies on the two toughest holes at Riviera for a 65 to share the lead at 9-under 133.
One of those birdies was a 55-foot putt from just off the ninth green.
"That was probably the biggest bonus of the day," Jacobson said.
John Merrick (66) and John Rollins (65) were another shot back, and Donald occupied fifth place all alone at 7-under 135.
Lee Westwood birdied the last hole for a 68 to join the group at 6-under 136 that includes a pair of major champions, Charl Schwartzel (67) and Webb Simpson (66).
Phil Mickelson was lurking, despite a sloppy double bogey on the 10th hole. Mickelson still managed a 67 and was five shots back.
"I had a little hiccup on the 10th," Mickelson said. "I was just trying to make 4 and I couldn't even do that. But 4 under is not a bad round, with the exception of No. 10. That took a great round and turned it into a pretty good round."
It sets up for a wide-open weekend along Sunset Boulevard.
Twenty players were separated by five shots. That included defending champion Bill Haas (67) and Matt Kuchar, who had a pair of double bogeys in a 73. They were four shots behind. Sergio Garcia bogeyed three of his last five holes for a 73 and was in the group at 4-under 138 that included Mickelson, Ernie Els and Adam Scott.
Jacobson has chronic back issues, and he has them under control at the moment.
Since his lone win at the Travelers Championship in the summer of 2011, he has only two top 10s in official PGA Tour events — a tie for eighth in Hartford as the defending champion, and his tie for seventh last week at Pebble Beach. A trip down the California coast did nothing to hurt his confidence.
"I obviously take a lot out of that, just being in contention again," he said. "I've had some good practice sessions before, but to bring it on the course and play under pressure, that's what it's about. And the sooner I can get back and put myself in this position where I can get some pressure, that's the best practice you can get."
The shocker was that everyone finished the second round, a rarity at Riviera with a 144-man field.
Robert Streb had to make par on his last hole for 70 players to make the cut. Instead, he missed a 5-foot putt and took double bogey. That not only allowed 10 players into the weekend at 2-over 144, but Streb wasn't one of them. His double bogey dropped him to 3 over.
Ryo Ishikawa, who made bogey on the 18th from the middle of the fairway, wound up making his first cut of the year.