10:54 a.m. CT
There have already been a few missed calls to his phone on this morning of Sept. 30, 2012, but Rory McIlroy doesn’t think much of them until the knock on the door.
Already preparing for a Ryder Cup tee time that he believes is an hour and a half away, he is neither ruffled nor rushed. His mindset, he says later, is wholly on winning a full point against Keegan Bradley and helping Europe climb out of the 10-6 hole it had dug over the first two days.
On Saturday afternoon, he had been reduced to merely a dazzled onlooker as teammate Ian Poulter birdied the final five holes to win their fourballs match. Before leaving the course a little while afterward, he checked his Sunday tee time: 12:25 p.m., it read. Plenty of time to sleep in before he needed to get to Medinah Country Club.
Until that knock on the door.
“It's one of the girls from the European Tour,” he recalls two years later. “They're like, ‘You need to go. You're going to miss your tee time.’ I was panicked. I was sort of half-dressed. I was just getting ready. They're like, ‘Look, we'll take care of everything else. We'll take your suit for the closing ceremony. We'll get all that stuff sorted. But there's a police car waiting for you downstairs. You need to get in that and go.’”
That 12:25 p.m. tee time? It was listed in Eastern Time. But Chicago, of course, is located in the Central Time Zone. He has about 30 minutes to make his tee time.
10:58 a.m. CT
Fully dressed and fully panicked, McIlroy walks out of the lobby of his hotel and directly into the squad car of Chicago Police officer Pat Rollins.
Had he wanted to, had he chosen the route of American hero and rationalized that the department motto of “We Serve and Protect” didn’t apply to Europeans who were late for their Ryder Cup tee times, Rollins could have elected to let McIlroy fend for himself. Chances are, with traffic, he never would have made it.
Instead, Rollins welcomes the golfer into his squad car and blares the sirens. The usual 25-minute trip to Medinah takes only 15.
“I would have done the same thing for an American player,” the officer would later say. “We were their hosts; they stayed in our community. The Ryder Cup was to be played on the course, not on the road.”
11:13 a.m. CT
By now an incident of international proportions, cameras are rolling as McIlroy makes his long-awaited and much-curious arrival at the golf course.
He quickly thanks Rollins and begins thinking about the match – the match for which he had all morning to prepare and is now racing toward without any preparation.
“Once I got there and knew I was going to make it,” he explains, “I was just saying, ‘Let's try and keep it together for the first six holes, like keep it to all square or even just 1 down or something, but just try to keep it tight for the first six.’”
11:15 a.m. CT
Any casual golfer who has rushed from work to catch a quick nine holes before dark can sympathize with what happened next.
Ten minutes before one of the biggest tee times in his life, McIlroy is furiously changing his shoes in the locker room.
11:19 a.m. CT
Now six minutes before that time, he hits a few chips and rolls a few putts on the practice green.
“I tried to hit a couple of chips and a couple of putts to sort of calm myself down,” he says. “Didn't work.”
No time to hit any full shots on the driving range, no time to check out the pin sheet, no time to strategize his way around the course.
11:23 a.m. CT
After the most whirlwind half-hour of his life, McIlroy arrives at the first tee. His opponent, Bradley, asks if everything is all right, but McIlroy can barely hear him over the partisan crowd.
Word had gotten out. The story had been told. McIlroy’s explanation for showing up late is already making international headlines by the time he reaches this point.
The massive galleries surrounding Medinah’s first tee know all about it. And so when he finally, at the last minute, shows up with a sheepish smile in between huffs of relieved sighs, they serenade him with an appropriate chant.
“CENTRAL TIME ZONE!!! CENTRAL TIME ZONE!!! CENTRAL TIME ZONE!!!”
11:25 a.m. CT
With his first full swing since Saturday afternoon’s fourballs match, McIlroy misses the fairway to the right.
Not optimal, but all things considered, it’s not awful, either.
11:36 a.m. CT
After missing the green, McIlroy nearly chips in for birdie.
His par is conceded and when Bradley matches that score, all the frayed nerves and anxiety of the morning begin to fade.
12:41 p.m. CT
Focusing on just keeping it close for the first six holes, McIlroy does much better.
A birdie on the sixth puts him 2 up early on – and more importantly, it keeps him from further embarrassment.
“After that, I was calmed down,” he recalls. “Able to get into some sort of rhythm. Then I was like, ‘Well, this is actually OK.’”
3:19 p.m. CT
Unpredictably, unexpectedly, McIlroy never trails in the match.
When Bradley misses his birdie attempt on the 17th hole, it’s over. The match is a 2-and-1 victory for McIlroy, one of five full points for Europe in the first five matches.
3:20 p.m. CT
Finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, McIlroy takes a bow.
“It was the best golf I played of the whole week,” he says now. “I shot 65 or 66. I was 6 under par for the match. I beat Keegan, who was arguably one of the best players for the U.S. team that week.”
He has not only absolved himself of infinite boneheadedness in sporting lore, he has helped put his team in position for an improbable comeback.
8:37 p.m. CT
Nearly 10 hours after McIlroy rushed from his hotel room to a patrol car to the course to the first tee, he attends a news conference with his victorious teammates, attempting to explain exactly what happened.
Some of them laugh. A few mutter well-intentioned needling under their breath. The team’s captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, just shakes his head in disbelief.
“In a way, it wasn't a bad thing because I didn't have time to think about it,” McIlroy says. “I still would have liked to have gotten here sooner, but I delivered my point for the team, and that was the most important thing.
“I was like, ‘Just get me there, get me there.’”