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Jason Kokrak has the lead at Riviera, with Dustin Johnson coming on strong

When Dustin Johnson says he didn't touch a club for nearly a month in the brief PGA Tour off-season, he isn't speaking in generalities.

He means he really didn't touch a club. Well, almost.

"I might have touched one," Johnson said with a smile Friday. "I didn't swing it, though."

Johnson believes in a good-old-fashioned time off — something many of his tour peers simply don't find to be much of a priority anymore. And though it might have cost him in his early-season rounds this year, he seems to be rounding his swing into fine form.

With four birdies in a five-hole stretch in the middle of the second round of the Northern Trust Open, while avoiding any big mishaps on the greens, Johnson shot five-under-par 66 to put himself in yet another strong position heading into the weekend at Riviera Country Club.

The nine-time tour winner is two shots off the lead of 30-year-old non-winner Jason Kokrak, who recorded eight birdies in notching the second-best score of the week — a seven-under 64. At 10 under, Kokrak is one shot ahead of journeyman Chez Reavie (67). Troy Merritt and Bubba Watson are tied with Johnson at eight under, with Marc Leishman alone at seven under.

Johnson, 31, finished 15th in Tiger Woods' unofficial Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in early December, and didn't play again until the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii a month later, when he tied for 10th.

He took two more weeks off before competing at Torrey Pines, and rested another week before heading to Pebble Beach and now Los Angeles.

Johnson is not a guy who's going to feel remotely guilty about that.

"You've got to take a break at some point," he reasoned. "At least I do. I've got to take some time off."

Asked what he did on his vacation, Johnson, the father of a 1-year-old son with fiancee Paulina Gretzky, grinned and said, "There's a lot of things you can do other than golf. I do them all."

With a low round of 66 heading into this week, and only four scores in the 60s among his 12 rounds in 2016, Johnson wasn't overly disappointed, because he'd done so little practicing.

"I was playing terrible — to me, I was," he said. "Just wasn't striking it good with the irons. Wasn't hitting it solid with the driver. Everything was just a little bit off.

"But I put in a lot of good work last week and this week."

Johnson, who speaks with a sleepy-eyed nonchalance, doesn't seem to get worked up over most things. Many players fret over the smallest of changes to their equipment, yet Johnson switched out his TaylorMade driver and irons this week. He said he had no concerns about the change.

"I felt really comfortable," he said. "It seems to be working so far. I haven't hit any balls where the yardages came up weird or anything. Everything's going how I've been planning it to go."

If Johnson even sets goals, winning at Riviera has to be high on the list. He has finished second here the last two years, with a third and fourth also on the ledger.

"I have no bad vibes or anything here," he said. "I love coming back here."

Kokrak (pronounced COKE-rack) goes into the weekend with the first 36-hole lead of his career. The closest he has come to winning in four-plus years on the tour is a tie for second in the 2012 Frys.com Open.

One of the tour's big hitters, averaging 310 yards a drive this season, Kokrak simply overpowered Riviera in making eight birdies to go with one bogey.

He made fours on all three par-fives, with No. 17 being the most spectacular. On the 597-yard hole, Kokrak bombed a 321-yard drive and used his four-wood to flight a 271-yard approach to 25 feet short of the flag, in the rough. He got up and down from there for this third birdie in a four-hole stretch.

At the par-three 14th, Kokrak nearly made a hole in one, hitting to eight inches. At 15, he hit an iron to 2 1/2 feet for birdie.

Riviera has not favored Kokrak in the past. His best finish in three previous appearances was a tie for 41st.

"It's been a struggle to learn how to play this golf course," he said. "It's old school. It's very hard."

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 20, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "NORTHERN TRUST OPEN - Hoping to hit it big - Kokrak shoots 64 as he seeks his first victory, while Johnson, who has come close at Riviera, rests easy two shots back" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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