LOS ANGELES — Steve Stricker hit enough crisp irons and made his usual share of putts to pull away from the field at Riviera and build a five-shot lead going into the final day of the rain-delayed Northern Trust Open.
Stricker was at 14-under par and had a 30-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole when it was too dark to continue. He will return Sunday morning to finish the third round.
Luke Donald finished his round at 5-under 66 just before the siren sounded and shared the clubhouse lead with J.B. Holmes (67) at 9-under 204. Andres Romero, playing in the final group with Stricker and 36-hole leader Dustin Johnson, also was 9 under with four holes left.
George McNeill shot a 66 and was 8 under along with Johnson and Kevin Stadler. Johnson had four holes to play, and Stadler had three left.
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.
Johnson returned Saturday morning to play two holes to finish his second round, and it turned out to be quite an advantage. 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. 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.
Barring a blowup, he will go into the final round with the lead. A victory might be enough to move Stricker to No. 2 in the world ranking, provided Phil Mickelson doesn’t finish in the top five.
That didn’t look likely the way it has gone for Lefty.
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.
Donald has only four victories worldwide, yet he always seems to be in contention with a precise game. A couple of more dynamic players are chasing Stricker in Anthony Kim (at 7 under through 17 holes) and Romero, the Argentine who once made 10 birdies in 16 holes at Carnoustie, the toughest links. Romero opened with 11 pars on Saturday, which at least kept him in the game.
The best round belonged to Scott Verplank, who had a 65. He is too far back to have a chance at winning, but another solid round Sunday might be enough for him to crack the top 64 and earn a spot in the Match Play Championship in two weeks.
DIVOTS: 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.