Commentary

A non-traditional path to Medinah

Mike Scully spent more time on the gridiron than the golf course growing up

Updated: September 12, 2012, 6:05 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Mike ScullyNick NovelliSince coming to Medinah Country Club in 2004, Mike Scully (left) has worked his way up from fourth assistant pro to director of golf operations.

Mike Scully always loved golf. It's just that some indisputable truths were always going to prevail.

"Being a 6-5 kid, over 200 pounds and golf the same time of year as football, the football coach is going to win out over the golf coach," recalled Scully, 46, now the director of golf operations at Medinah Country Club, host to the 39th Ryder Cup, Sept. 28-30.

The Prospect High star ran into some similar conflicts at the University of Illinois, where he captained the 1987 Illini team and was named to the Blue-Gray and Senior Bowl squads.

"I always used to get in trouble from the offensive line coach when he'd see my clubs in the backseat," Scully said. "He thought I should be in the weight room rather than playing golf with Jack Trudeau and the other quarterbacks."

Golf did not intrude on Scully's NFL career but mostly because there wasn't enough time. He played one game as an undrafted free agent long-snapper for the Washington Redskins.

"I think it's on the bloops and blunders reel," Scully said. "We were on 'Monday Night Football' playing the New York Giants and I don't think I ever had a bad snap before that. I had been doing punts and placements since I was 8, but it just so happened my first bad one was in a 'Monday Night' game in front of about 60 million people."

Growing up in Chicago, Medinah was definitely a dream job. I actually had a Lou Holtz clause in my contract at Forest that said if this job ever opened up, it would be the only one I could interview for.

-- Mike Scully

Scully was released the next day and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. "I had the proverbial cup of coffee," he said of his short time in the league, "and then it was time to figure out what else to do."

A hospitality management major at Illinois, Scully spent a couple of years coaching football at Buffalo Grove High School before looking for work in Florida, where his father John spent considerable time playing golf.

"When Mike came through the door, our clubhouse manager said 'This guy wants to learn the food and beverage part of our business. Can you use him for a few months?'" recalled Jim Butler, then-head pro at The Forest Country Club in Fort Myers and currently the president and GM at Grey Oaks in Naples. "I said 'Mike, the food and beverage part is great but you should also think about getting your card.'

"So here comes this 6-5, 300-pound behemoth of a man into a sport and into a community, but he has such a warm, genuine side … people naturally gravitate toward him."

Still, the golf part wasn't quite polished.

"He was using a regular set of golf clubs, so he looked Paul Bunyan with a toothpick when he would play," Butler said. "But we got him the right clubs and within a year and a half, he went from an 18 to 20 handicap to a scratch golfer."

Mike Scully
Courtesy of Mike ScullyScully played center for the Fighting Illini from 1984-87 and made one appearance for the Washington Redskins in 1988.

Scully also worked his way up from fourth assistant pro manning the pro shop, cleaning clubs and seeing "a substantial drop" in salary from the NFL to $18,500 a year, to head pro. With a strong Chicago connection already established among the membership, however, thoughts of moving back north were never far away.

"Growing up in Chicago, Medinah was definitely a dream job," Scully said. "I actually had a Lou Holtz clause in my contract at Forest that said if this job ever opened up, it would be the only one I could interview for."

When Scully got the call from Medinah in 2004, both the '06 PGA Championship and this year's Ryder Cup were already on the schedule. He said learning how to finesse the member events around the biggies has been his biggest and most rewarding challenge. That, and handling the pressure.

"A lady came up to me other day and said 'You have a look of stress on your face,'" he said. "I apologized and she said 'I understand but you've got to enjoy the ride, smell the roses. Monday morning [after the competition ends] will be the closest thing a man can experience to postpartum depression.'"

His "baby," Scully said, will largely take care of itself once the players arrive at the club. And he is not worried about their reaction, despite drought conditions this summer in the Chicago area and across the country that created speculation about the readiness of the course.

"An especially dry summer is always a concern," Scully said. "I saw a couple things about Cherry Hills [Colo., site of the U.S. Amateur last month] that they struggled with heat and had some stress. Lucky for us, our event is in September because the golf course will shine.

"The golf course is absolutely spectacular right now, the players will rave about the conditions," Scully said. "I walked the course hole-by-hole with our superintendent [Curtis Tyrrell], and it's exactly the way he wants it, and we're going to get a temperature change and it will be even better. It's as good as it has been in the last 12 months."

The course has been set up with the knowledge that a high percentage of Ryder Cup matches end on the 15th and 16th holes in the match-play format.

"We've created an environment where a drivable par 4 on the 15th hole and a very difficult par-4 16th should provide excitement and some fun," Scully said.

Course No. 3, where the Ryder Cup will take place, has also hosted three U.S. Opens (1949, '75 and '90), the 1999 PGA Championship and three Western Opens (1946, '62 and '66).

But it's not hard to tell which event Scully puts at the top of the list.

"The thing about Mike is you can definitely tell how excited he is and how much this means to him as far as the size and scope [of the Ryder Cup]," Tyrrell said. "But Mike is a big-stage guy. He's been on a big stage his whole adult life. He's a pro at this stuff and he makes it look easy."

Maybe, maybe not, but he will at least try to enjoy the ride.

"Sept. 15 to Sept. 30 will be the most grand accomplishment this facility has done," Scully said. "And at this point in my career, it is the highest pinnacle of what I'm trying to accomplish here. I'm at the top of the mountain right now."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.