By Ed Osmond
LONDON (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy's bid for an elusive first U.S. Masters title and the grand slam of golf's major championships has received an unexpected boost from the long-range weather forecast.
Heavy rain and storms are predicted to batter the Augusta National course, handing a potential advantage to the Northern Irishman whose four major titles have all come at tournaments afflicted by adverse weather conditions.
McIlroy, the world number two, is long overdue a Masters triumph on a course perfectly suited to his long driving and creative shot-making.
Six years ago, the 27-year-old took a four-shot advantage into the final round and shot 37 on the front nine to hold on to the lead.
But he made triple-bogey on the 10th hole and four-putted for a double-bogey on the 12th en route to a final-round 80 that left him 10 strokes behind champion Charl Schwartzel in a tie for 15th place.
The experience hardly scarred McIlroy.
A few weeks later he surged to his maiden major title with an eight-stroke victory in the U.S. Open at a rain-sodden Bethesda, Maryland.
McIlroy won the 2012 U.S. PGA Championship and took that title again in 2014 two months after claiming his first British Open triumph at Royal Liverpool.
But the former world number one has never conquered Augusta.
Moderate performances came in 2012 and 2013, when he finished 40th and 25th, before top-10 finishes in the past three years.
McIlroy tied for eighth place in 2014 and shot a closing 66 to finish fourth in 2015, six shots behind champion Jordan Spieth.
Twelve months ago he rebounded from an ugly third-round 77 to close with a solid 71 which earned him a share of 10th, again six strokes adrift of the winner, Danny Willett.
Although McIlroy's preparations for the Masters have been hampered by a six-week injury layoff, he has finished second, seventh and fourth in his three strokeplay events this year.
He suffered an early exit from the WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas last week, providing the opportunity to travel to Augusta early to get in some practice rounds.
“It’s giving me a chance to prepare a little bit better," McIlroy told reporters.
"I feel like I’ve worked a lot on my short game. If anything I feel like that part of my game is as sharp as it has been ever going into Augusta, so that’s a good thing."
McIlroy has played only 10 competitive rounds since returning to action following his rib injury.
"Right now I can’t see a downside to not having played as much as I planned to. I feel really healthy. And freshness could help, especially mentally. Mentally, going in there and not being drained is a good thing as well.”
A glance at the weather forecast should lift McIlroy's confidence even further and with the Augusta greens unlikely to be as lightning quick as usual he will fancy his chances of donning the Green Jacket at last.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)