It was a day of high drama and extraordinary performances, yet the decision that won the Ryder Cup for Europe wasn’t taken on the golf course or in the locker-room rather, it was made on the forecourt of the team’s Chicago hotel at 11.00 on Sunday morning.
That moment was when Rory McIlroy chose to leap into the passenger seat of a high-powered police car instead of the civilian SUV which was waiting to rush him to Medinah Country Club for his singles match with Keegan Bradley.
In that panic stricken split second, McIlroy took the option which ensured he would make the 13-mile journey in time to tee up against Bradley. Had he travelled in the Ryder Cup courtesy car, McIlroy certainly would have become bogged down in the heavy traffic on the congested approach roads to Medinah. So the crucial point he contributed to Europe’s 14.5 to 13.5 victory, and the morale-boost of winning all of the first five singles matches, would have been lost to Jose Maria Olazabal’s team.
Credit for getting the Ulsterman through the traffic and crowds teeming into Medinah for the Ryder Cup climax has gone to Pat Rollins, the deputy chief at Lombard Police Department. Rollins made full use of the siren and flashing red and blue lights on his police car, plus the super-charged V8 engine under the bonnet to get McIlroy to the course in around 10 minutes. Yet Rollins isn’t the only American hero of this incredible Ryder Cup tale.
Maggie Budzar and Erica Stoll, two young ladies who work as transport officials for the PGA of America, deserve as much credit for helping to save the day for McIlroy and European golf. As she checked off her list of the players from both teams to be transported from the hotel to the course, Maggie noticed there was no tick alongside McIlroy’s name in her log. So she checked with Erica, her counterpart at Medinah Country Club, to see if the world No 1 had travelled with someone else. When word came back that he hadn’t, the two young ladies, both in their 20s, raised the alarm.
“It was 10.30. I knew JP (Fitzgerald, McIlroy’s caddie) had left about an hour earlier,” Maggie explained. “I also knew Rory’s tee time was 11.25 and that he was in the third group to go off … and we still hadn’t seen him!”
Ms Stoll knew a lot more than McIlroy at that point. When he checked the tee times on the Golf Channel website the previous evening, he failed to notice that they were given in Eastern Standard Time, an hour ahead of Chicago. So McIlroy, believing he was due to his opening drive at 12.25, was upstairs in his room, blissfully unaware that anything was amiss.
Unlike other elite sports teams, Ryder Cup golfers don’t travel together by coach to the venue. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they all have different tee times and, secondly, they also have different practice routines. While McIlroy considers 40 minutes to be a long warm-up, the fastidious Padraig Harrington spends two hours or even more preparing for a round.
As every team member is an experienced, successful professional and operates to his own tried and trusted pre-round routine, no Ryder Cup captain would consider interfering with this in the week of such a massive event, especially when so many other facets of their regular tournament routines are disrupted by the social commitments the teams must fulfil at the Ryder Cup. So officials keep an eye on the comings and goings of the players in their care, just to make sure nobody gets missed.
“I tag-team with my colleagues at the course,” Ms Stoll continued, “checking the players in and out. I knew everyone who was walking out of the hotel. There was a huge crowd here waiting to photograph the players so everyone knew he hadn’t come down yet. In fact, they were getting antsy, asking where he was so I just lied and said he’d already left.”
“Then I started getting worried that something had happened to him or that he had taken a different ride to the course, so I checked with the hotel and they said maybe he was on the players’ floor.”
Interestingly, Ms Stoll recounts: “There was only one room still in use when housekeeping checked and a male voice said not to come in. We figured it had to be him because by now we knew he wasn’t at the course. I called the guys at the driving range to see if they had seen him. They hadn’t so I called the European Tour officials to alert them. We then had someone go up to his room.
“At first, I was going to drive him to Medinah because I knew the way and we didn’t want to put a volunteer under stress in the courtesy car and make a wrong turn or something like that. I then asked a police officer (deputy chief Rollins) at the front if he could take him with the flashing lights on and he said that’d be okay. I gave Rory the choice and he went straight to the front seat of the officer’s car. There was a sense of panic by then. He was on the phone saying to someone he thought his tee time was 12.25. He was walking really fast. Security blocked the people off and he got there in 10 minutes.”
McIlroy revealed that he’d been talking on the phone to his agent Conor Ridge at that time. Explaining that he’d been awake since 9.0, when he had made a phone call to his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy said he had received a couple of calls at 10.30 … but because they were from “a strange number”, he didn’t answer them.
“I was walking out my hotel room door at 11.0 when Conor rang and asked “are you at the golf course yet?”. When I told him I was still at the hotel, he said “You’re teeing off in 25 minutes! I said ‘no I’m not, I’m off at 12.25’. So Conor says at that point ‘Rory, are you taking the p*ss?’ I assured him I wasn’t and he said ‘well, you’d better get here’.”
McIlroy admitted he’d never endured such a panic-stricken trip to a golf course. Missing that tee time by five minutes would have required him to forfeit the point to Bradley, an option he can’t bear even to think about.
Asked if he could imagine if, as a result, Europe lost by a point, he confessed: “I don’t want to. I don’t think I’d ever be able to forgive myself if I let down my team-mates and the captain in that way. I’m glad I made it with 10 minutes to spare; won my point for the team and we ended-up winning. I’m not one to get to the golf course too early anyway. Half an hour does me and I am ready. I do my thing and go. Keegan said to me ‘Is everything okay? Nothing wrong? No one hurt?’ and we had a bit of a laugh about it.”
Given the intense stress he’d just endured on that car ride to Medinah, McIlroy played incredibly well, virtually taking control of his match from the off.
“I think I got here at 11.14, so I had 11 minutes to spare to put my shoes on, hit a couple of putts and go,” he said. “Once I got out on the course I calmed down a bit but I’ve never been this frightened going to the golf course in my life. Obviously Keegan was pumped up for the match and JP said if we could hang in there with him for the first six holes, I’d be fine. I was two up after six and that’s all I needed.”
So he was able to take full part in celebrating Europe’s victory. “It was just unbelievable, the whole day. We loaded the top of our order because we knew that we needed points on the board early. That was the whole foundation to this day. I know all the boys put their heart and soul into this… it’s just unbelievable. The Americans did it to the Europeans in ’99 but on their home turf. But to do it to the Americans here is just incredible,” he concluded.
Yet Europe should toast an American cop and two of his diligent young compatriots along with its Ryder Cup history-makers.