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Matt Kuchar leads Northern Trust

2/15/2013 - Golf Matt Kuchar

LOS ANGELES -- Coming off a three-week break, Matt Kuchar
might not remember golf feeling this easy.

He opened with three straight birdies, all of the putts inside 3
feet. He made back-to-back birdies late in his first round at
Riviera. He made seven birdies, the longest putt from 8 feet, on
his way to a 7-under 64 for a one-shot lead over Sergio Garcia on
Thursday in the Northern Trust Open.

Garcia, making his PGA Tour debut after two tournaments in the
Middle East, finished with two birdies over the last three holes
even though he could barely see. Fog dropped in at Riviera over the
final two hours after a day of warm sunshine, and Garcia could
barely see the landing area in the fairway or the flags on the
green.

No matter. He closed with an 8-iron to 6 feet on an elevated
green at No. 9 for his seventh birdie.

Brandt Jobe, returning from a serious neck injury last summer,
put his experience to use on the course he played more times than
he can remember while at UCLA. He ran off four straight birdies
late in his round, only to close with a bogey on the 18th to finish
at 66.

Conditions rarely have looked this good at Riviera, from the
firm grass below the feet and the magnificent, sun-filled sky above
them -- at least until the last couple of hours.

It felt like a working vacation, and it's the latter Kuchar
knows so well.

After opening with three straight weeks on the PGA Tour, which
featured a pair of top 10s, he spent a week in Palm Springs and
then took his family to Hawaii for paddle boarding, snorkeling,
just about everything where an ocean is involved.

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.' 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."

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 of England were at 67.
Disney winner Charlie Beljan chose to finish in the fog after play
was suspended. He closed with a bogey and had a 67. He had seven
birdies.

Eighteen players failed to finish the round, not unusual for
this tournament. They were to return Friday 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."

Watson struggled.

For the first time in nearly three years -- dating to a
second-round 73 in the 2010 Honda Classic -- the Masters champion
failed to make a single birdie. He had a 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 an 83, and
Cameron Beckman, who had an 80. Steve Marino was disqualified for
signing an incorrect scorecard. He had a 78. Ben Crane checked in
with an 80. Geoff Ogilvy, who ended last year at No. 51 in the
world, had a 76 for his eighth straight 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."