By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Phil Mickelson ranks Riviera Country Club as one of his favorite venues on the PGA Tour, even though it took him almost a decade to discover the art of playing the par-71 layout.
Known as a classic shot-maker's course, Riviera continually vexed Mickelson as he missed four cuts in eight PGA Tour appearances here between 1988 and 2001.
He then skipped the event until 2007 when he made a last-minute decision to compete and ended up losing to fellow American Charles Howell III in a playoff for the title.
Mickelson has since won the tournament twice and was edged out in a three-way playoff at Riviera last year when compatriot Bill Haas emerged triumphant.
"I really enjoy Riviera golf course," world number 10 Mickelson told reporters on Wednesday while preparing for this week's Northern Trust Open at the venue. "It's one of the better ones we have on tour.
"It's funny how it's become that way and it's become one of my favorite tournaments on tour, given that for a number of years I didn't play here.
"And when I came back in 2007, I lost in a playoff to Charles Howell and then won the following two years, I quickly fell in love with the place and started to appreciate it for its nuances."
Asked to explain why he had initially struggled at Riviera, four-times major winner Mickelson replied: "I really don't know. I've always liked the golf course from day one.
"I just never played it effectively and it was by pure chance in 2007 that I added the tournament when I missed the cut at the (Bob) Hope (Classic the previous week), and I played really well.
"I just played it effectively, kind of understood the course. And I putted well on the greens."
Mickelson arrived at Riviera after a disappointing finish to his title defense at last week's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am where he closed with a 72 to end up a distant 18 shots off the pace.
Just a week before that, he had produced scintillating golf on the way to a four-shot victory at the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"I had a really good two days of practice here after Pebble," said Mickelson. "I was a fraction off from Phoenix and I believe that it's now back on track.
"I'm starting to hit the ball solid again and I'm really optimistic about the week. It should be good."
Mickelson has an intriguing grouping for the first two rounds at Riviera where he will play alongside fellow Americans Haas and Keegan Bradley, the trio who contested last year's playoff.
"It's going to be a fun two days," smiled left-hander Mickelson. "I always enjoy playing with both those guys.
"I've had a chance to get to know them on the (U.S.) Presidents Cup team, Ryder Cup teams and we've really had a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to the week."
Haas won last year's title at the second extra hole, sealing victory in stunning fashion by sinking a curling 43-foot birdie putt. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Peter Rutherford)