Luke Donald is playing as if he never took that long winter break.
Donald relied heavily on his exquisite short game Friday in the Northern Trust Open, chipping in twice for birdies on his way to a 5-under 66 that left him two shots behind Sang-Moon Bae among those who played early at Riviera.
Donald, who last competed Thanksgiving week in Dubai, began his round with a delicate bunker shot short of the 10th green for birdie. He has required only five shots to play the 10th hole in two rounds, which is fewer than some players took in one round.
Bae opened with four straight birdies, most of them from tap-in range until a 25-foot putt on the 13th hole. He kept right on going until the 26-year-old from South Korea had the lead to himself with a 6-under 65. Bae played with John Merrick, who had a 66 and was one shot behind.
The forecast was for wind to increase in the afternoon, making it likely that Bae's 36-hole total of 9-under 133 might hold up. Among those playing in the afternoon were Matt Kuchar, who had the first-round lead at 7-under 64, and Phil Mickelson.
Donald, the No. 3 player in the world, was one of three players from the top 20 who had yet to play a tournament this year, and they all played in the same group. Adam Scott had a 67 and was at 4-under 138, while Graeme McDowell had a 72 and was likely to miss the cut.
Donald doesn't have the well-rounded game that took him to No. 1 in the world as recently as six months ago. His short game has carried him, a product of how much work he spent during his break from tournament golf over the last two months.
He holed a tough chip for eagle on the 10th hole Thursday, knocked in a chip just short of the 15th green Friday, and chipped in from about 70 feet short of the green on the par-3 fourth hole for his last birdie of the day.
"Tee to green, I'm getting closer," he said. "I'm very excited being sharp with my short game. It's nice to be in the mix this early. It's never easy to come off a long break and get straight back into the thick of things. A lot of my score comes from a good short game."
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel looked sharp in his long game and had a 67, leaving him three shots behind at 6-under 136 along with U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who had a 66.
John Mallinger, who like Merrick plays out of Long Beach, birdied his last four holes for a 66 and was another shot behind.
Missing from that group was Sergio Garcia, who started the second round with an eagle to take the outright lead, though that was as good as it got. Garcia stumbled to the finish, making three bogeys over his last five holes for a 73 and dropped him five shots behind.
Donald began his rise to No. 1 in the world two years ago by working with Dave Alred, a performance guru from Britain who is famous for working with rugby players such as Johnny Wilkinson. The latest influence is none other than Michael Jordan, though Donald says it's nothing more than spending time with the NBA great.
Donald spends half the year in south Florida, where Jordan is building a home.
Jordan loves to play golf. Donald loves to take his money.
"I usually give him six (shots) a side," Donald said. "And that's usually not enough for him."
Donald won an NCAA title at Northwestern and he first met Jordan in Chicago. He says they are simply friends — "In no way am I working with Michael at all" — although it doesn't hurt to be around someone with such a winning pedigree.
"It's great just to be around someone that was arguably the greatest of all time in his sport, just to see how he reacts, his demeanor, see his attitude toward things," Donald said. "It's been nice just to spend a little bit of time with him.
"I try to pick up things from just watching him," he said. "I ask him some questions and he gives me answers sometimes. Certainly, it's not like a working relationship. It's just nice to have access to someone that was that great at his sport."
Donald still doesn't understand how he has played the 10th hole so well this week. That hasn't been the case for others.
Dustin Johnson, typically a contender at Riviera, needed a big round to make the cut and perhaps get into contention. He started Friday morning on the 10th hole and went over the green, and then plugged slightly in the back bunker. His next shot popped onto the green, just barely, and rolled back into his big footprint in the sand. It took him two more shots to get out, and he was happy to leave with a double bogey. Another short-game error late in his round led to a double bogey, and Johnson had a 69, likely to have a weekend off going into the Match Play Championship.
Masters champion Bubba Watson hit one tee shot on No. 3 that came close to the 18th fairway. He was headed toward a missed cut.