By Tony Jimenez
LONDON (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy has made such encouraging progress since the struggles of last season that he can look ahead to next week's Masters with genuine hope of finally exorcising the demons of Augusta 2011.
Three years ago the mop-haired youngster from Northern Ireland took the Masters by storm, charging into a four-shot lead with one round to go.
However, the sheer weight of expectation on the European Tour's new Golden Boy seemed to catch up with him over the final 18 holes as he ballooned to an 80 to finish down the field in a share of 15th position.
McIlroy bounced back in style by winning the very next major on the calendar, the 2011 U.S. Open, before adding the U.S. PGA Championship title during a spectacular 2012 season that ended with him winning the money-lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
He then suffered the first real extended hiccup of his fledgling career last year, battling a series of problems on and off the course, but his only victory of 2013 at the Australian Open in December seemed to re-invigorate the 24-year-old.
It was a special win for McIlroy in several senses, not least because he birdied the final hole to snatch the crown from Masters champion and home favorite Adam Scott with the last stroke of the tournament.
This season the Northern Irishman has been in title contention in five of the six strokeplay events he has entered and he looks to have his mojo back for good.
"The run of form I've been on validates what I've been working on and what I've been trying to do with my golf game," McIlroy said last month.
"I'm in a really happy place with where everything is at in my swing, and mentally I feel good."
McIlroy lost out in a four-way playoff at the Honda Classic in Florida in March and also finished tied for second at the European Tour's Abu Dhabi Championship in January when a two-shot penalty in the third round ultimately cost him victory.
He breached the rules while taking a drop at the second, turning his par-five at the hole into a double-bogey seven, and it proved a costly blunder.
"It's frustrating. I played well the whole week," said the double major winner after ending up one stroke behind Pablo Larrazabal of Spain.
"It was a very positive start to the season so I'm not going to let one little negative ruin that."
McIlroy said at the start of the year that he wanted to make up for a disappointing 2013, when he seemed to be destabilized by a change of club manufacturer and off-course legal matters, by winning two of the four majors on offer.
In order to have a chance of achieving his title dreams he knows he must show more consistency than he did last season.
"It's all about getting myself in position to win," said McIlroy. "If you keep giving yourself chances, hopefully learn from the mistakes, then you're going to eventually walk through the door and win.
"Then, when you get into the habit of it, it becomes a bit easier. It's not realistic to say, I want to win every tournament I play, because history shows it's just not possible.
"But giving yourself a chance and getting yourself into contention is what I expect of myself," said McIlroy.
"Everyone knows I didn't do that enough last year and I've started this year better because I've been in contention every time I've teed it up. I'm happy with that."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)