Getty Images

The last time the golfing public saw Rory McIlroy, he was quickly turning out of the parking lot at Pinehurst No. 2 following a disappointing end to his 2024 U.S. Open. Making bogey on three of his final four holes -- including a miss from inside 3 feet on No. 16 and another inside 4 feet on No. 18 that would have ultimately forced a playoff -- McIlroy was left one shot short of eventual champion Bryson DeChambeau.

McIlroy has chosen to stay out of the spotlight since. Withdrawing from the PGA Tour's last signature event of the season -- the following week at the Travelers Championship -- the Northern Irishman only now returns to action three weeks later at the 2024 Scottish Open where he stands as the event's reigning champion.

"The way I've described Pinehurst on Sunday was like it was a great day until it wasn't," McIlroy shared Wednesday. "I did things on that Sunday that I haven't been able to do in the last couple years: took control of the golf tournament, holed putts when I needed to -- well, mostly when I needed to -- made birdies. You know, really got myself in there. And then, look, obviously, unfortunate to miss those last two putts, or the putt on 16 and obviously the putt on 18. 

"Yeah, it was a tough day. It was a tough few days after that, obviously. But as you get further away from it happening, you start to see the positives and you start to see all the good things that you did throughout the week. Yeah, there's learnings in there, too, right? I can vividly remember starting to feel a little uncomfortable waiting for my second putt on 16, and you know, the putt on the last, it was a really tricky putt. 

"And I was very aware of where Bryson was off the tee. I knew I had to hit it really soft. If the one back didn't matter, I would have hit it firmer. But because I was sort of in two minds, I didn't know whether Bryson was going to make a par or not, it was one of those ones where I had to make sure that if the putt didn't go in, that it wasn't going 10 feet by, which it very easily could have. Thinking back, yeah, maybe I was a little too aware of where Bryson was and what he was doing, but it was the nature of the golf course and how the golf course flowed ... so it sort of got me out of my own little world a little bit. 

"But no, when I look back on that day, just like I look back on some of my toughest moments in my career, I'll learn a lot from it and I'll hopefully put that to good use. It's something that's been a bit of a theme throughout my career. I've been able to take those tough moments and turn them into great things not very long after that."

After a quick trip home, McIlroy spent the days following his U.S. Open defeat walking the streets of New York City. Originally intending to play the Travelers Championship in nearby Cromwell, Connecticut, the 35-year-old instead blended in with the city, made a few calls to those in his inner circle and was alone with his thoughts. As the days went by, McIlroy said he was able to see the positives from his play at Pinehurst more clearly, and he charted a course for The Open Championship at Royal Troon. 

"As you achieve more in the game, you can soften the blow if you look at everything I've been able to accomplish," McIlroy said. "It's been a while since I've won a major, but it hurt, but I felt worse after some other losses. I felt worse after Augusta in '11 and I felt worse after St Andrews. [The U.S. Open] was up there with the tough losses but not the toughest."

It won't be the first time McIlroy enters a major championship fresh off major disappointment. At the 2011 Masters, the then 21-year-old entered the final round with a four-stroke lead only to shoot 80 on the final day and fall 10 strokes off the pace. In his next major, the U.S. Open, McIlroy lapped the field at Congressional for an eight-stroke victory and set 11 tournament scoring records in the process.

Not much will need to change for McIlroy to claim his fifth major. He has consistently positioned himself down the stretch at the four biggest tournaments these past few years only to see his ball lip out instead of lipping in at crucial times. Quite a change from how he was playing in his late 20s. Eventually, the tide should turn in his favor-- perhaps even quicker if he can implement the lessons learned from Pinehurst.

"Well, that's the thing. [I would not do] a whole lot different," McIlroy said. "As I said, it was a great day until it wasn't. ... If anything, I'd say my pre-shot routine got a little bit long. Started to look at the target a few more times over the ball. And then ... being very aware of what maybe some others were doing on the golf course and not really staying in my own little world for the whole 18 holes. But really, apart from that, there's not a lot I would do differently."

McIlroy is set to defend his Scottish Open crown this week at the Renaissance Club before making the trip to Troon for the final major of the year. The club most recently served as host for The Open in 2016 when McIlroy finished in a distant fifth-place, 16 strokes behind Henrik Stenson following his epic duel with Phil Mickelson. 

It will serve as McIlroy's final chance of 2024 to end a decade-long major drought. Without a trophy raise in a major since the 2014 PGA Championship -- now 10 years removed from raising the Claret Jug -- the four-time major champion sees The Open as simply his latest chance to find the winner's circle.

"It's just another opportunity," McIlroy said. "I'm playing great golf, and it's another opportunity to see how I can hopefully handle it better than I handled it a few weeks ago."