LOS ANGELES >> Riviera might be all Dustin Johnson needed to snap out of his mediocre play.
A runner-up the last two years, Johnson shot a 5-under 66 despite making birdie on only one of the par 5s and was tied for the lead with Troy Merritt among the early starters Friday in the Northern Trust Open.
Merritt, who picked up his first PGA Tour victory last year at the Quicken Loans National, had a bogey-free 66.
They were at 8-under 134.
Jordan Spieth was headed home, though not without a brief fight.
Spieth, the No. 1 player in the world, opened with a 79 and knew he would have needed something in the low 60s to have a chance of making the cut. He made it hard on himself with two early bogeys, then ran off four straight birdies around the turn to get within range. But he made bogey on No. 2 with a poor iron shot to end any realistic chance. Spieth made eight birdies in a round of 68 and missed by at least four shots.
"Coming into the day, the hard part is trying to make enough birdies, and I did that," Spieth said. "Just too many mistakes."
Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson played in the afternoon.
Camilo Villegas, who opened with a 63, made double bogey on his second hole and wound up with a 74. He was three shots behind Johnson and Merritt.
Johnson lost in a three-man playoff a year ago, and before that finished second to Watson. He hasn't won since Doral last year, and he hasn't seriously challenged in the final round of any tournament since the HSBC Champions last November.
Turns out there's a reason. He stopped playing.
Johnson said he didn't play golf from the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas on Dec. 6 until he arrived in Kapalua nearly a month later. Then, he took two weeks off without much work before Torrey Pines, and another week off before Pebble Beach.
It's his idea of a winter break to keep his mind fresh. But he started grinding hard at Pebble, on the course and on the range, and appears ready to go. It helps that it's at Riviera, which he loves for the look and the way he plays it.
"I think it sets up very good to me. It looks good to my eye. It's a beautiful course," Johnson said. "It's fun to play. You've got to hit a lot of different shots, and it never plays easy. So this is about as easy as it can play right now, good weather and the greens are really soft. Still, the scores are not that low."
All but two of his drivers went at least 300 yards, and one stood out in particular. He took it over a tall eucalyptus tree on the 458-yard 13th hole, leaving him only 116 yards to the pin. He nearly holed the second shot, only for it to spin back some 20 feet and lead to a two-putt par.
Still, it sure got Adam Scott's attention.
"Fourth hole of our day, he's swinging like it's 95 degrees and midday somewhere," Scott said. "I was looking for another cup of coffee and he's piping it over the trees on 13. The way he drives the golf ball is just unreal. He's an incredible talent and fun to play with, fun to watch."
Scott didn't do too shabbily. He had a 68 and was part of the group at 6-under 136.
Also in that group was another major champion — Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion — who took a winter's break that even Johnson would admire. Leonard packed up and moved his wife and four children to Aspen, Colorado, last year and is loving life on the ski slopes.
He prepares for golf mainly in the gym, doing exercises that are key to his swing. But as for golf? He went 35 days without so much as touching a club until he started out his year in the desert. Leonard wants to play no more than a dozen times this year, and he's making the most of this opportunity.
Leonard rarely got out of position, making two bogeys when he did, but he closed with a 4-iron from 204 yards up the hill to 6 feet for birdie on the ninth.