Perry shot a 6-under 66 Thursday to go to 14 under and take the second-round lead in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
Phil Mickelson, playing his first tournament of the year after a disappointing 2003 season, had another good round, a 63 that left him one shot behind Perry.
Mickelson was the 2002 Hope champion, and Perry took the title in 1995 in the 90-hole event.
Kirk Triplett had a 65 and Skip Kendall a 68 and were tied with Mickelson at 13-under 131.
Perry, 43, is coming off his best year, with three victories, 11 finishes in the top 10, and $4.4 million to rank sixth on the earnings list.
'I've just gotten better,' said Perry, who has won seven times in his career. 'I just understand how to play. I understand my golf game. I'm not as rattled as I used to be, and I'm not as angry on the golf course as I used to be.
'I used to always get frustrated trying to make things happen. I'm just letting it happen instead of trying to force it now. You just have to be patient and try not to make the big mistake.'
Patience helped him move into the Hope lead on a day when he wasn't hitting the ball straight.
'It was probably the best round I've ever played for as poor as I hit the ball,' he said. 'I kept hitting everything to the right. Thank goodness the mental side of my game was good.'
Beginning the second round on the back nine at PGA West, he was just even par for the day when he curled in a tricky 8-foot birdie putt on No. 18.
That started him rolling.
Making a series of putts from 6-8 feet after the turn, he had five birdies and no bogeys on the front nine.
'The key to my round was the 18th' Perry said. 'I mis-hit a pitching wedge into the front bunker, then blasted it 8 feet from the hole. But it had about eight inches of break, a big curler off the hill.
'I said I was going to make the putt for birdie and shoot 5 under on the front nine.'
And he did.
Mickelson, who hasn't won for some 18 months, was particularly pleased with his short game, which had deserted him last year.
'I'm very pleased with the progress of the first two rounds of the year,' he said. 'I feel like I've driven the ball very well, and I feel much more confident from 134 yards in, which last year was a point of dissatisfaction.'
He has gone back to his old form from after tinkering with his game last year caused him to be inconsistent.
'My poor performance led to poor confidence,' he said.
Four courses are used for the Hope, with the players alternating daily. The first four days are a pro-am, then the field is trimmed to the 70 low-scoring pros and ties for Sunday's final round at PGA West.
DIVOTS:@ Kendall, who had an opening 63 to share the lead with Mark Hensby, said his five birdies during the second round weren't enough to satisfy him. 'I would have liked a few more,' he said. 'I got a little greedy, I guess.' ... Hensby struggled to a 77 on the second day to drop back into the pack. ... Triplett said he doesn't mind playing in a low-scoring tournament like the Hope occasionally, but 'I wouldn't want a steady diet of it. I don't think any of us would.'
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