By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Having ended a lengthy title drought with back-to-back victories late last year, Sergio Garcia has regained his golfing appetite and is hungry to return to the European Ryder Cup team.
The gifted Spaniard, who was once tipped to be Tiger Woods's biggest challenger, says his motivation is back and he is determined to return for his sixth Ryder Cup appearance at Medinah, Illinois, in September.
Garcia failed to qualify as a player for Europe's 2010 Cup victory over the United States at Celtic Manor in Wales and he had to make do with a vice-captaincy role there under skipper Colin Montgomerie.
"You all know how much I love the Ryder Cup and how important it is to me," the Spanish world number 17 told reporters at Riviera Country Club on Tuesday while preparing for this week's Northern Trust Open.
"I would love to make that team and help my team mates retain the Cup. I'm as hungry as I was before, as hungry as I was trying in 2010 and as hungry as I was in any of the other ones that I managed to qualify for."
Making the 2012 European team would be extra sweet for Garcia, given that his compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal has succeeded Montgomerie as captain.
"I think Jose is going to be an amazing captain," said Garcia, a 10-times winner on the European Tour. "I've had him as a vice-captain, and he was great so I'm really looking forward to seeing him as a captain.
"I just hope that we can all play as good as we know so we can help him win it."
Garcia gave himself a well-timed boost in his bid to qualify automatically for Olazabal's team by ending a three-year victory drought with successive wins on the European Tour in October.
"That was very important," he said of his triumphs at the Castello Masters and the Andalucia Masters.
"But before those two wins, throughout the whole year, I felt like I was doing a lot of good things ... and it was getting better and better. That gave me the confidence to then end up winning twice.
"The way I played at the U.S. Open (joint seventh), the way I played at the British Open (joint ninth) and even at the PGA (Championship) ... were just buildups for my confidence to help me with my game."
Garcia won the biggest title of his career at the 2008 Players Championship but failed to claim another for three more years as he struggled with his form and motivation.
He dropped out of the world's top 50, costing him automatic exemption for the game's biggest events, and was ranked a lowly 78th at the start of last year before he slowly worked his back up.
Asked what had been the biggest change in his game over the last year, Garcia replied: "Probably mentally ... because you go from kind of being a little bit screwed up in the head to really knowing what you want to do on the course and are willing to be there.
"Your thought process changes a little bit, so that's probably made everything else get better. I wouldn't say I am like how I was at 18 or 19, but I try to enjoy the game as much as I did then, just try to play it as free-wheeling as I can play."
Garcia will make his first appearance on the 2012 PGA Tour when he tees off in Thursday's opening round.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Ian Ransom)