After starting the second round of the 2016 CareerBuilder Challenge tied for first place Friday, Jason Dufner made an emphatic statement that he's back in peak form with a 65 to lower his total score to 15 under par.
The crowded leaderboard didn't leave Dufner with much room to breathe heading into moving day, though. Jamie Lovemark dazzled with a 65 to finish one shot behind Dufner through 36 holes, while five players tied for third at 12 under.
Here's the complete leaderboard after the CareerBuilder Challenge's second round:
Dufner came out of the gate Friday like a man possessed, seemingly capable of shooting a 59 if he wanted to. The 38-year-old carded a 30 on the front nine thanks to six birdies, including three straight from Nos. 7 through 9.
As the television broadcast mentioned (via the PGA Tour), this was a "dream start" for Dufner:
Jason Dufner is now walking in birdies. "Well that is the dream start for Dufner." https://t.co/3KDDH6sZSc— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 22, 2016
The American star would come back down to earth on the back nine, hitting his first bogey of the tournament on No. 10, but he settled in with birdies on Nos. 12 and 14 to maintain his one-shot lead over Lovemark.
The past two years have been difficult for Dufner. Brian Wacker of PGATour.com noted neck problems ended Dufner's 2014 season prematurely, and a divorce last year "left him disillusioned" because of all the media attention.
Dufner told Wacker he was looking forward to putting everything behind him to focus on this season.
“I’ve had some distractions that have taken time away from what I want to do to be successful,” Dufner said. “That’s part of life, so now I’m trying to just roll with it and get back to working and playing."
Per Josh Culp of Rotoworld, Dufner posted his low round on the Stadium Course, which made it even more impressive:
For perspective, among the players with the 10 lowest scores Friday, only two came from the Stadium Course. The Tournament Course and La Quinta Course each had four to round out the group.
On the Tournament Course, Lovemark continued to play steady golf. He hasn't posted one of the lowest scores in either of the first two rounds but has been a consistent presence.
The 27-year-old has been a stealthy contender early this season, tying for ninth at the RSM Classic in November and competing admirably at the Sony Open last week. He's still in search of a PGA Tour victory but does have two wins on the Web.com Tour.
Phil Mickelson is also lurking after a second consecutive strong performance. Lefty got off to a promising start with a 68 on Thursday but looked even better Friday with a 65 that included four straight birdies on the back nine from Nos. 14 through 17 to finish 11 under par.
Mickelson continued to work well off the green with shots like this chip-in on his 13th hole (No. 4), per the PGA Tour:
ESPN.com's Jason Sobel noted how impressive Mickelson has been off the green thus far:
Phil Mickelson has now holed out from off the green three times this week. And it's only Friday afternoon.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) January 22, 2016
Mickelson doesn't even think his swing is all the way back, which makes his performance even more encouraging, per Ron Mintz of MintzGolf.com:
"My swing is about a week away. I have won with less." Phil Mickelson after a 65 today @cbgolfchallenge— Ron Mintz (@PGATOURNEWS) January 22, 2016
Mickelson needed a strong start to the season after struggling through much of 2015. He had only three top-10 finishes last year, which was the same number of cuts he missed in 19 tournaments, and didn't finish better than 18th in his last seven PGA Tour events.
It's too early to make declarative statements about how Mickelson will fare in 2016, but his performance at the CareerBuilder Challenge has been encouraging.
Even before everyone was in the clubhouse, KenPom Golf gave him the fourth-best odds to come out of the weekend with a victory:
CareerBuilder (R2 5:29): Dufner(-15/15) 21%, Lahiri(-13/15) 19%, Lovemark(-13/13) 12%, Mickelson(-11/F) 6%, Palmer(-11/17) 5%— PGA win probability (@kenpomgolf) January 22, 2016
Defending champion Bill Haas is also off to an excellent 36-hole start with back-to-back scores of 66 to enter the weekend three shots behind Dufner. He's on a better pace than he was when he won the event in 2015 with a score of 22 under par, but low scores across the board left him with room to make up.
The leaderboard remains a mess from top to bottom, with so many players still in contention after 36 holes that anything is possible. Dufner and Lovemark are the safest bets to pull away from the pack Saturday, but 23 players shot 66 or better Friday.
Endurance and mental toughness will be essential heading into the third round, so whoever shows the most poise will be in line to win.