LOS ANGELES — Coming off a three-week break, Matt Kuchar might not remember golf feeling this easy.
He opened with three consecutive birdies, all of the putts inside 3 feet. He finished with back-to-back birdies at Riviera, holing a 25-foot putt on the 18th hole for 7-under-par 64 that gave him a one-shot lead over Sergio Garcia on Thursday in the Northern Trust Open.
It was a great day for scoring, and Kuchar had plenty of company.
James Hahn, the 31-year-old rookie who shared the 54-hole lead last week at Pebble Beach, and David Lynn were at 67. Disney winner Charlie Beljan chose to finish in the fog after play was suspended. He closed with a bogey and had 67.
After opening with three consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour, which featured a pair of top 10s, Kuchar spent a week in Palm Springs and then took his family to Hawaii.
Getting back to golf, he worked with swing coach Chris O’Connell and felt just as good as he did before his break.
“I think it was Monday we put in a good day of work and I said, ‘I need to get out and play.’ ” Kuchar said.
“We went over to L.A. Country Club, played the North Course. I was excited about the things we were working on and excited how I was hitting the ball. … I think the hot start was certainly a great way to get the round going.”
He had seven birdies.
Eighteen players failed to finish the round, not unusual for this tournament. They were to return this morning to finish, and then immediately start the second round.
The group at 68 included Lee Westwood and 53-year-old Fred Couples, a two-time winner of this event who feels rejuvenated when he plays at Riviera. Also at 68 was Fredrik Jacobson, the last man in the 64-man field at the Match Play Championship. With a good week, he won’t have to face Rory McIlroy in the first round next week.
Couples played the final Champions Tour event last year and the season opener this year, along with a two-day exhibition. He hasn’t practiced much in between.
“So it’s surprising, but again, I can figure my way out around this course,” Couples said.
He made clean, powerful contact for so much of the day, even producing the longest drive of his group on the par-5 17th over Westwood and Bubba Watson. Couples was pin-high on the hole for a simple up-and-down, the start of three straight birdies.
“It’s kind of a golf course that if you play well, you can shoot a decent score,” Garcia said. “But if you are not on, you can struggle quite a bit.”
For the first time in nearly three years – dating to a second-round 73 in the 2010 Honda Classic – the Masters Tournament champion failed to make a single birdie. He had 76.
Phil Mickelson also is trying to regain some form just two weeks after his record performance to win the Phoenix Open. He had said it was imperative to be in the fairway to approach the small greens of Riviera, and three fairways was not the blueprint he had in mind. Mickelson didn’t hit a fairway until his 11th hole. Even so, he scratched out a 71 and felt he was only a round away from getting back into the mix.
“A mini-victory,” he said of his round at even par.
The surprise might have been Jobe, who discovered nerve blockage in his neck that became so bad he couldn’t close his hands around the club after playing the AT&T National last summer at Congressional. What followed was six months of rest and therapy and, after missing the cut at Torrey Pines, Jobe ran off six birdies at Riviera.
Jobe is on a major medical exemption, and he has to earn $303,178 in 10 events to keep full status the rest of the year.
“I’ve still got a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be, but my situation, every round counts,” he said. “So this is a good start to the week. Hey, I’d love to have a good week and get this thing wrapped up and be able to move on and have a normal life out here. But the reality is, you’ve really got to take it one day at a time. I’ve been out there and played enough that it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad day.”
Four players withdrew, including Sean O’Hair, who had 83, and Cameron Beckman, who shot 80. Steve Marino was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. He had 78. Ben Crane checked in with an 80. Geoff Ogilvy, who ended last year at No. 51 in the world, shot 76 for his eighth consecutive round without breaking par.
Kuchar had no such issues in his bogey-free round.
“Just drove it well today, which is a big key around here,” he said. “The greens are pretty tricky and pretty firm this year, so coming out of the rough, it’s difficult to get a ball to stop close to the hole. Coming out of the fairway is a key thing to play some good golf, so we are driving it well and played some nice golf today.”