By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LA QUINTA, California (Reuters) - Brian Gay's quest to add length to his driving led to a frustrating 2012 campaign but his increased yardage off the tee helped him clinch his fourth PGA Tour victory at the Humana Challenge on Sunday.
Long known for his accuracy and relatively short hitting, American Gay had increasingly felt "handcuffed" by some of the longer PGA Tour courses and last year he began working with Grant Waite and Joe Mayo in a bid to gain distance.
Though the whole process has taken a while to gel, he was greatly encouraged by his fourth-place finish at the 2012 season-ending Disney Classic and all the hard work reaped rich reward on Sunday when he triumphed in a three-way playoff.
"Last year was a struggle," Gay, 41, told reporters after edging out fellow American Charles Howell III and Swede David Lingmerth for his first victory on the U.S. circuit since the 2009 St. Jude Classic.
"It was a long year, a lot of work. I actually started out decent but the summer was long and tough.
"Disney helped me a bunch. I played really good at Disney to end the year on a good note, and I just felt recharged and refocused to get off and have a great year this year."
Gay has established himself as one of the best putters in the game and, with the help of Waite and Majo, he has added more than 15 yards to his driving statistics since the start of last year.
"I've learned so much from those guys," he said. "I've always been a short hitter on the Tour and I felt like as I was getting older I'm only going to get shorter and shorter.
"The Tour, it's become a power game now the last number of years and I feel like a bit handcuffed at a lot of events. So I kind of went to Grant initially to get his thoughts ... thought it would help my game.
"And it was tough last year trying to play making those changes. But I feel like it's coming around. I just was trying to get more efficient with my driver numbers to kind of max out my distance."
Gay signed off with a nine-under-par 63 on a sun-drenched day in the Coachella Valley, coming from six strokes behind in the final round to join Howell and Lingmerth in a playoff.
However, he felt extremely fortunate that neither Howell nor overnight leader Scott Stallings birdied the final hole in regulation, the par-five 18th, to claim outright victory.
"Scott and Charles are long hitters, I knew they had a mid-iron into 18," he said, having finished his round a little earlier with a 25-under total of 263. "I figured at least one, if not both of them, would birdie 18."
As it happened, Howell three-putted for par after missing a five-footer for birdie while Stallings, who had been five strokes in front of the pack after the third round, bogeyed the hole after dumping his second shot into water.
"So I was fortunate for that not to happen and have another chance," smiled Gay. "And boom, there we go. And just felt like I kind of had a second life, another opportunity."
Lingmerth was eliminated at the first extra hole, where he bogeyed, and Gay clinched the title by sinking a five-foot birdie putt at the second extra hole, where Howell bogeyed after ending up in a greenside bunker with his approach.
"It feels amazing right now," Gay said of his win. "I'm still in a little bit of shock. It kind of happened so fast there at the end the way things went down."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Patrick Johnston)