By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Patience and hard work are prized attributes in professional golf and South Africa's Charl Schwartzel relied heavily on both to emerge successfully from the darkest period of his playing career.
The 31-year-old endured frustrating campaigns in 2014 and 2015 as his world ranking slipped to 54th by November but he kept telling himself he was good enough to play at the highest level and that the tide would eventually turn in his favor.
And so it did. Two wins in his last three starts worldwide have marked him out as one of the hottest players in the game and he now believes he is close to the best form of his life.
"In 2014, I was terrible and '15 wasn't the best either," former Masters champion Schwartzel told Reuters after moving into early contention for another title with a three-under-par 68 in the first round of this week's Northern Trust Open.
"Sometimes I wasn't sure it would ever turn around. You go through those stages but I kept telling myself, 'You've been out here for so long, you know that these things happen.'
"You get the ups and the downs, this down was just longer than what I was used to. But I just kept telling myself, 'You're good enough to play out here, you've just got to wait your turn, keep working and it will turn.' It feels like it's turning."
Many would view Schwartzel's claim that his form is now 'turning' as a massive understatement, given the sizzling form he has produced in his last four events worldwide.
After tying for fourth in the European Tour's season-ending DP World Tour Championship in November, the following week the slim South African won the opening event of the 2015-16 season, the Alfred Dunhill Championship, by four shots.
Since then, he has tied for ninth at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in December before taking a break from the game prior to a commanding eight-stroke victory on home soil at the Tshwane Open on Sunday for his 11th European Tour title.
"There's nothing like winning tournaments and playing well to boost your confidence," smiled Schwartzel, whose world ranking has climbed to 31st.
"You go from feeling like everything is against you to being on top of the world and feeling like you can win every time you come out. This time last year my golf swing was probably in the worst place it has been in as a professional.
"It's nice to have gotten some form and be playing better. It makes me excited for this year."
Asked to pinpoint the worst area of his game during his lean spell, Schwartzel replied: "Last year, I was 170th in putting on the PGA Tour and that never gets the job done.
"So when I started putting a little bit better, my long game was always there or thereabouts but it got even better. I have given myself so many birdie chances the last few weeks, made a few putts and that's been the difference."
Schwartzel, a former world number six, achieved his greatest golfing success at the 2011 Masters when he birdied the last four holes to seal victory by two shots and secure his first major title.
Asked if he felt his game was back to those heights, he replied: "It's definitely very close to it. As professionals, we're always seeking something but this feels very good."
(Editing by Larry Fine)