Good first day

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -Jason Kokrak’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame gives the John F. Kennedy High School graduate an enormous advantage off the tee.

His ball striking ability is uncanny, but the Warren native’s PGA Tour-leading driving distance (312.4) isn’t the reason Kokrak is two shots off the Phoenix Open lead at 5-under 66.

He opened the round at TPC Scottsdale with a couple of par-saving putts on No. 10 and 11 and showed his versatility around the green with seven birdies and two bogeys on Thursday.

“I struck the ball very well. I put myself in great spots on the green to give myself relatively straight putts – a lot of uphill puts. I made a lot of nice 3-, 4-foot par saves to start the round. I didn’t birdie the first par 5 after having an iron into the green,” Kokrak said.

He was 7-under par heading into the final two holes – the par 4 No. 8 and 9..

“I hit some quality iron shots,” Kokrak said. “I kind of trusted my game and picked my way around the golf course. I made a couple of nice birdies to start the front nine. I lost it there at the end, but I’m hitting the ball great. I didn’t drive it all that well today. I drove it in the fairway, but there was a little bit to work on. I worked on it a little bit after the round, so hopefully I can continue the ball striking throughout the tournament.

“Hopefully I can get a few more putts to drop on the weekend.”

The Warren native, who tees off his second round today at 3:01 p.m. with Martin Flores and Erik Compton, spent last week in California honing his play around the green. Torrey Pines turned into Kokrak’s training ground, even though he did not participate in the Farmers Insurance Open.

“It paid off (Thursday). I started rolling the ball really well early in the round and carried it through,” Kokrak said. “A couple of stupid mistakes at the end of the round cost me. If I can eliminate those mistakes, 7-under par is a great score on that golf course. It could be even better than that coming into the rest of the week. I look forward to it.”

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson’s back was better than his game in the Phoenix Open.

Returning to play after withdrawing from Torrey Pines last Friday night because of back pain, Mickelson opened his title defense with an even-par 71 at TPC Scottsdale. That left him seven strokes behind leaders Bubba Watson and Y.E. Yang.

Mickelson first felt soreness in his back two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, and pulled out of his hometown event in San Diego after making the 36-hole cut. He flew to Georgia to see back specialist Tom Boers and was told his facet joints locked up.

Mickelson had a double bogey on the par-3 12th – his third hole of the morning round – after hitting into the left-side water. He made 20-foot birdie putts on the next two holes, but three-putted for par on the par-5 15th after hitting a hybrid pin-high from 245 yards.

Watson and Yang shot 64.

Play was suspended at 7:59 p.m. with 10 players left to finish Round 1. Second-round tee times will remain the same.