The 31-year-old jumped three spots to 13th in the world rankings with a fourth place finish at the penultimate FedEx Cup play-off event.
It was a five under par final round 67 that left McIlroy five shots adrift of winner Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau, beaten in a thrilling six-hole play-off after missing a short birdie putt.
For Holywood’s four-time major winner, one place shy of a podium finish is never going to make the career highlight reel but towards the end of a a frustrating season that has yielded as many missed cuts as it has top fives on the PGA Tour (three), it’s a welcome sign of promise.
In itself, it had hinted at even more after an eight under par opening round 64 had McIlroy top of the leaderboard. A relatively disappointing second round 70 was the major set-back of the week, his combined weekend total of -13 as good as both of the play-off stars.
The upshot of it all is that McIlroy at least makes it through as one of the season’s top 30 players to this week’s Tour Championship at East Lake, where he’s a two-time winner.
He’ll have his work cut out to complete the hat-trick, starting eight shots behind FedEx Cup leader Cantlay due to the head starts given on the basis of the season’s standings.
But at least he’s there – two shots better off ranked 16th than he would have been at his 28th placing last week – and now looking forward with more optimism, especially after pleasing his coach with his best opening round since the first tournament of 2021 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
“It's been a good week,” he concluded. “A lot more encouraging than last week at the Northern Trust. I played better and I got off to a better start. I think that's the thing, as well; Pete has always been on me about if you start tournaments well, you'll do well.
"It was nice to play a good first round this week, build off that and not really be trying to play catch-up all the time.”
McIlroy returned to his TaylorMade Spider putter this week, having recently used a Scotty Cameron blade but felt his bad days with the traditional shape of head were too punishing.
Picking up over one shot on the field on the greens, it seems the Spider is back to stay.
"I tidied up my short game a bit this week, which was nice to see, made some good up-and-downs, made putts when I needed to hole putts to save a par or to make a birdie on a par five and keep the momentum going,” he said. “You don't necessarily feel that you play that differently, but all those little things add up to two or three shots a day, and that's a big difference out here.
“All I wanted to do was get to East Lake next week, and it's nice that I've moved up a few spots, as well, and probably start a couple of shots closer to the leader.”
Meanwhile, Shane Lowry carded a seven under par final round 65 to finish in a tie for 26th at 13 under par but that wasn’t enough to make it through to the Tour Championship, finishing 45th in the FedEx Cup standings. Instead, Lowry will return home to Ireland for a week off before the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth next week.
He’s currently occupying the final spot in Europe’s Ryder Cup team qualifying, with Bernd Wiesberger in hot pursuit after his second place finish at the Omega European Masters.
Wiesberger will be in action at this week’s Italian Open as well as the final qualifying event at Wentworth but, either through merit or as one of captain Padraig Harrington’s three picks, Lowry is confident of making it to Whistling Straits.
"I'm pretty happy with how I've been playing over the last while, and I think I've put my hand up,” he said. “I'm in the team now, but Wentworth is going to be a big week, and I'm looking forward to kind of going there and competing. It's a place I love going, and hopefully I can have a good week and cement my place on the team.”