Cold and wet conditions greeted the early starters in the second round and McIlroy was forced to tinker with his game plan at Carnoustie, playing conservatively in shooting a 2-under 69 that left him two strokes off Zach Johnson's clubhouse lead.
He revived his hopes with birdies at nine and 11 before giving one back at the next, but he suddenly found himself in a tie for the lead with eventual victor Francesco Molinari when he holed a mammoth putt for eagle at the long 14th which hauled him to six under.
He entered the turn for home in better spirits after holing a massive birdie putt at the ninth to move to four-under, winking at American playing partner Matt Kuchar as he went to pick the ball from the hole.
Rory McIlroy put memories of a flat final-round performance at the Masters firmly behind him with a battling last round at the British Open on Sunday as he posted a one-under-par 70 to finish six-under overall.
"Tiger being back in the mix".
"I have no regrets".
"It just proves to me that I can play well in this tournament, that I can win The Open", said the Olympic champion. "Like, I didn't play in the previous eras, but I don't think there were that many".
"I thought Tiger was going to win", he said. Only Francesco Molinari's brilliance kept McIlroy from getting his hands on the Claret Jug again.
He missed the cut at the U.S. Open last month, for the third straight year, after opening with a 10-over 80.
As well as the two 25-foot putts he rolled in, he was also happy with only dropping one shot in the closing four holes - a grueling stretch he describes as a "slog".
"It was great to get the crowd behind me".
McIlroy, who started the day four off the lead, made bogeys on the 2nd and 5th holes to drop further off the pace, but he got them back with birdies on 9 and 11.
"I'm lost for words really", said Molinari.
"You know, it just wasn't to be - I just ran out of holes".
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