INVERNESS, Scotland -- Phil Mickelson broke out of his slump with an 8-under 64 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open on Friday, leaving him five shots off the second-round lead shared by Alexander Noren and Francesco Molinari.
Noren used another round of 66 to move to 12 under alongside Molinari, who couldn't match his blistering 62 on Thursday but managed a 70.
Ian Woosnam is the only player to have won the Scottish Open three times -- in 1987, 1990 and 1996.
Mickelson charged up the leaderboard in an overcast but largely wind-free round at the Castle Stuart links. The three-time Masters champion broke par for the first time since May, with an eagle and six birdies putting him in a strong position for the weekend and improving his confidence before the British Open.
''We've had perfect weather and the golf course was there for the taking,'' said Mickelson, who shot a 73 Thursday after cutting short his family holiday in Italy to play in the tournament. ''It's very helpful to see my game progress so quickly. I think the more I play, the better it gets. It's not to the level that I would like, yet, but I get closer each day.''
His 64 matched the lowest round of the day -- along with Ricardo Gonzalez and Matteo Manassero, who finished at 11 under. S.S.P. Chowrasia of India was another shot back, while top-ranked Luke Donald shot 68.
''It was very stress-free,'' said defending champion Donald, who birdied the last two holes. ''It was a nice finish and I'm only three back. You've got to stay patient and you've got to know that this course does offer some opportunities, especially in reasonably benign conditions.''
Mickelson chipped in for eagle with his lob wedge from 60 yards at his first hole. Driving long and straight and making 16 greens in regulation, he gave himself plenty of birdie chances.
It marked a massive improvement for Mickelson, who missed the cut at the Greenbrier Classic last week, tied for 65th at the U.S. Open and withdrew after a first-round 79 at the Memorial Tournament in his last three events.
''To have a good, consistent 18 holes of golf was a nice breakthrough and it gives me a chance on the weekend to try to do the same,'' he said.
The 89th-ranked Noren carried his 30th birthday celebrations over from Thursday by making six birdies and an eagle.
Molinari had an average round after his tournament record-equaling 62 on Thursday.
''I knew it was going to be hard following up yesterday,'' the Italian said. ''I knew it wasn't going to last forever.''
Oddly enough in the Scottish Highlands, a tee shot from Gonzalez rolled into an open packet of salt and vinegar chips on the par-4 seventh hole. After taking a drop, he made his first birdie and added six more.
Peter Whiteford made the second hole-in-one of the tournament after acing the 11th but missed out on the prize of 168 bottles of champagne -- for each yard of the hole -- because Andrew Johnston of England achieved the feat on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Manassero carded seven birdies in the last nine holes to end the day just one shot off the lead. The European Tour's youngest-ever champion could qualify for Royal Lytham next week with a top five-finish, but his sights are on emulating what German Marcel Siem did at the French Open last Sunday by winning to earn his spot.
"The Open is on my mind and this is my last chance," said the 19-year-old from Verona. "I would really love to be in The Open. I like links golf and it has a special atmosphere."
Manassero was not the only 19-year-old to make it through. Scottish amateur Jack McDonald, playing in the final group of the day, chipped in at the par-5 last to earn himself another two rounds in his Tour debut.
Molinari had a triple-bogey 7 on the 464-yard seventh to allow Noren to join him out in front after a second successive 66 the day after his 30th birthday and the day after his girlfriend won an event in Norway.
"Following a 62 is never easy," said Molinari. "I tried to do the same, but I knew it was going to be hard."
With 2009 winner Martin Kaymer alongside Donald and Padraig Harrington at 6 under, the final 36 holes has all sorts of possibilities still.
Ernie Els survived with nothing to spare at 4 under -- only two off the lowest-ever cut on the circuit -- and it will be a weekend without Tom Lewis, Paul Casey, Paul Lawrie and Colin Montgomerie, as well as Americans Rich Beem and John Rollins.
Lewis, the amateur star of last year's Open, will not be at Lytham after his miserable recent run continued with rounds of 73 and 72 for 1 over par. Montgomerie finished 1 under and Lawrie 2 under, but Casey looks no nearer finding his old form.
A week after tying for last in Paris, he had only three of the 156-strong field behind him after back-to-back 76s. He has made only one cut since dislocating his shoulder snowboarding in Colorado last Christmas Eve, and trying to change that in the Open is now asking a lot for the former world No. 3.
Big things were expected of Noren when he won in Wales and in his home country last season, but he has not had a top-5 finish since October and is trailing way behind in the Ryder Cup race.
"I think I'm not going to be on top at the end of the day," he said at lunchtime. But he was wrong.