By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LA QUINTA, California (Reuters) - Returning to the California desert for this week's Humana Challenge is the perfect place for Jhonattan Vegas to be as he strives to add a second PGA Tour victory to his already impressive career resume.
Two years ago, the Venezuelan claimed his first title on the U.S. circuit in only his fifth start, recovering from a faltering finish to beat Americans Bill Haas and Gary Woodland in a nerve-jangling playoff at this pro-am celebrity event.
Lingering tendonitis in his shoulder hampered his 2012 PGA Tour campaign, making Vegas even more eager over the coming months to replicate at the very least the success he enjoyed in his rookie season.
"Being here gives me a lot of confidence to just keep on going and keep looking for that second tour victory," Vegas told Reuters on Saturday as he reflected on the memories of his 2011 Bob Hope Classic triumph.
"It keeps reminding me that I won here on the PGA Tour and that I can do it again. That's kind of what this place does to me so I've just got to keep reminding myself of that."
The happy-go-lucky Vegas, who learned golf playing with a broomstick and a rock in his native Venezuela, ended his spectacular 2011 campaign with three top-10 finishes in 25 starts but failed to match that consistency last season.
"Last year wasn't a good year for me," said the 28-year-old from Maturin. "Physically I wasn't 100 percent the whole year and because of that, I wasn't really playing the best I could.
"I had a little shoulder tendonitis that kept popping up and kept hurting on the swing. It wasn't a good deal but I have passed that and now I can focus on golf."
Vegas recorded only two top-10s in 25 PGA Tour starts last season, with a best finish of joint fourth at the AT&T National, but he maintains his overall experience in 2012 was positive.
"It was a good year of learning, getting to know courses, how to handle things and how to play when you're not feeling 100 percent," he said. "Every year is a learning year out here. Hopefully I can make one as good as the first one, or better."
Though he missed the Humana Challenge cut on Saturday after dropping four shots in his last three holes of the third round, Vegas was not overly disappointed.
"I feel like I have hit the ball well enough to be close to the leaders, I just really haven't putted well enough," he said after carding a one-over-par 73 at La Quinta Country Club for a six-under total of 210.
"I have left a lot of opportunities out there, so I've got to work on that a little bit. I just haven't had the pace on the greens and that makes it tough trying to make putts here."
Vegas, whose beefy build has helped him become one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, is clear-cut about his objectives for this year.
"I definitely want to try to move into the top 50 of the world rankings, which is a massive thing for us and really gets you into absolutely everything," he said.
"That's pretty much my goal this season and if so, that's going to lead to having some good tournaments and maybe having some wins. So I have to work on that."
Vegas, whose breakthrough victory at the Bob Hope Classic sparked jubilant celebration in soccer-mad Venezuela, would dearly love to see the game become more popular in his homeland.
"It made a big splash back home when I won here and that's always positive," he said. "It made people more aware of the game and helped to grow the game there, which is my objective.
"I want to get more kids playing and more players involved with the game. Hopefully we can get more players from there to make it on tour. I will be very happy if that happens."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by John O'Brien)