By Mark Lamport-Stokes
THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - Nick Watney's sharper short game has helped him to two titles in the past four months and put himself in good position to clinch a third by surging two shots clear at the World Challenge on Thursday.
The soft-spoken American birdied four of the last six holes at Sherwood Country Club to fire a five-under-par 67 in the opening round of the elite, 18-man event hosted by Tiger Woods where only three other players broke 70.
"I played pretty well on the back nine," Watney said after coming home in four-under 32 to end an overcast day at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains two ahead of compatriots Keegan Bradley and Jim Furyk, and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell.
"The front nine was a little sloppy. My short game is definitely where I need it to improve for next year. I've kind of been getting into that a little bit, and it helped me today."
Asked by reporters what particular area of his short game he had been working on, Watney replied: "For me personally, I can always get better at chipping.
"I'm not at the top of the tour in chipping stats, that's for sure. So that is a huge key, especially in this month of December for me.
"But putting can hide a lot of things," said Watney, who totaled 27 putts on Thursday. "If you make a lot of eight and 10-footers, you don't have to chip it as well as other guys, so that's definitely a huge key."
Watney's overall form improved markedly after he worked with swing coach Butch Harmon for a week before the U.S. Open in June.
Following a string of consistent performances, he went on to win the fifth PGA Tour title of his career at the Barclays tournament in August, then triumphed at the PGA Tour co-sanctioned CIMB Classic in Malaysia last month.
"After spending some time with Butch, something kind of clicked there, and I started playing much better," the world number 16 said. "I think that was kind of the turnaround.
"Now I want to keep going higher (in the world rankings). Tiger and (top-ranked) Rory (McIlroy) are very impressive, and all the top players, they continue to strive to get better.
"That's my goal, is to really try to get better and really try and get in contention as much as I can. The more you're there (in contention), the more you win, and that's the best part about playing on the Tour - winning."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)