There was a changing of the guard Friday at the Northern Trust Open, as Jason Kokrak emerged from the shadows with a 64 to take the lead with a 36-hole score of 10 under par.
Kokrak's 64 was the lowest round of the day, with four other players boasting 66s, including Dustin Johnson. The jumbled leaderboard also features Chez Reavie alone in second place at nine under par and Bubba Watson in a three-way tie with Johnson and Troy Merritt for third at eight under par.
Here's a look at the leaderboard following Friday's action at the Riviera Country Club:
Calling Kokrak an off-the-radar leader would be an understatement. He entered the weekend ranked 210th in the world and hasn't finished higher than 25th in a PGA Tour event this calendar year.
But every so often in golf, a player connects with a course, and unexpected things happen. Kokrak proved that with brilliant approach shots like this on No. 15, per the PGA Tour:
Kokrak doesn't have any breathing room, with Reavie bearing down on him. The Kansas native was having a solid round through 14 holes but turned on the jets with three birdies over the last four holes to vault into position to win his first PGA Tour event since 2008.
In Saturday's final-pairing battle between Kokrak and Reavie, ESPN.com's Jason Sobel amusingly noted the physical comparisons skew one way:
The key for Reavie on Friday was putting. He came into the Northern Trust Open ranked 176th overall in strokes gained on the green but improved to 2.449 strokes gained with his putter in the second round to offset his below-average driving distance and accuracy.
There must have been something in the water, as Johnson made the turn after starting on the back nine with four birdies in seven holes to vault into Kokrak's rearview mirror.
As the PGA Tour noted, though, few courses have been as kind to Johnson as the Riviera Country Club in recent years:
Johnson does have a history of not building on successful rounds, recently shooting a 74 in the third round after a second-round 66 at the Farmers Insurance Open, so Saturday will determine how legitimate his title chances are this weekend.
Rory McIlroy, who is making his 2016 PGA Tour debut this weekend, will also need a strong Saturday to keep his title chances alive. The former world No. 1 stumbled on the back nine with three bogeys but was otherwise solid while firing a 69 to end up six under par.
There were indications that McIlroy was finding his groove, such as his second shot on the par-five 17th hole, per the PGA Tour:
Ultimately, though, erratic driving accuracy (50 percent) and some problems with the putter, including two three-putts on Nos. 13 and 15, offset McIlroy's brilliance. He's still getting back into the swing of things on a course he's never played, so this is a positive 36-hole start.
On the other hand, even though his Friday performance was an improvement, Jordan Spieth didn't do nearly enough to stick around for the weekend. The world's top-ranked player needed something positive after an opening-round 79.
Spieth rebounded in the second round with a 68 that lowered his score to five over par, but he missed the cut. Justin Ray of Golf Channel provided this stat:
Speaking to reporters after his round, per Karen Crouse of the New York Times, Spieth knew what he had to do: “Coming into the day, the hardest part is trying to make enough birdies, and I did that. Just too many mistakes.”
Spieth also said his caddie, Michael Greller, put his performance into perspective: “He was just saying, you know, don’t make this a bigger deal than it is. Look at your missed cuts last year and what happened right after, and he’s right. We rebounded in a perfect form last year on just about every missed cut. We’ll be fine.”
It would be shocking if Thursday's showing doesn't end up as Spieth's worst round in 2016. He's always under so much pressure to perform that it's easy to forget he's 22 years old.
Yet even with Spieth's absence this weekend, there is still a loaded field featuring a mix of marquee stars (Johnson, McIlroy and Watson) and unheralded players looking to get off to strong starts in 2016.
Kokrak and Reavie will be waiting to see what type of pressure the field puts on them. They have been able to answer the bell so far, but playing in the final pairing is the biggest test for a golfer.
Stats courtesy of PGATour.com.