By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LA QUINTA, California (Reuters) - Having spent most of the last four years in the golfing doldrums, former British Open champion Stewart Cink gave himself a welcome boost as he charged into contention at the Humana Challenge on Saturday.
The 39-year-old American, winless on the PGA Tour since his playoff victory over fellow American Tom Watson at the 2009 British Open, made the most of ideal scoring conditions in the California desert to fire a six-under-par 66 in the third round.
His bogey-free display lifted him into a five-way tie for second place at 17 under, five strokes behind pacesetting compatriot Scott Stallings, who took control of the tournament with a sizzling 63.
"It was a good, solid round," Cink told reporters after signing off with a two-putt birdie at the par-five 18th. "I hit a lot of fairways. These courses, even though the scoring is low, there's danger out there.
"So if you keep it out of the penalty situations, you're going to have a lot of looks at birdie and you can shoot some pretty low scores and you don't have to be spectacular.
"And that's what I did today. I took advantage of my opportunities here and there and made one or two pretty good saves. But it was a pretty nondescript round to be honest."
Cink was especially pleased to soar into contention after missing the cut in his first PGA Tour event of the season at last week's Sony Open in Hawaii.
"I was playing really well in the off-season," said the tour veteran, who has triumphed six times on the U.S. circuit. "I was really in control and I felt like I was doing some good stuff.
"But then Sony, I missed the cut and I was really frustrated by that because I felt like I was going to go out to Sony and play well, and I really didn't play well at all.
"So coming here this week, I was a little frustrated... and to be honest, I didn't expect this. I've hit a lot of really nice shots this week. The biggest thing, though, is my putter has been pretty warm this week."
Cink's barren title run and generally poor form since he clinched his first major crown at the 2009 British Open persuaded him to re-assess his swing with his coach at the end of last year.
Together they decided to return to "some fundamental stuff", more akin to how Cink played in his younger days as a professional.
"For the most part, it's just been a small setup change where I have to keep my balance right and try to rotate instead of moving laterally," Cink said.
"I was having trouble off the tee and my short game wasn't very reliable. Those are areas where you just really have to be on out here to be competitive."
Asked how frustrating the past four years of struggle had been, Cink replied: "Even 2009, when I won the major, that year overall was not a very good year for me. The one major win was obviously great, but the rest of the year stunk.
"And so I had already started to sort of decline a little bit in my performances and I had stopped trusting what I was doing.
"The ball was really telling me that I shouldn't really be very trustful of what I was doing because it wasn't going where I wanted it to go... and so I'm trying to dig myself back to the top."
(Editing by John O'Brien)