At the young age of 80, Drury decided to put an end to his career as a polo player. He is still fit, but he wants to give back some time to his family after 40 summers fully committed to the sport. His farewell was as unforgettable as it can get, playing at his beloved Oak Brook Polo Club in an international match against England to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the club. Oak Brook won 7-6 after an epic comeback in the last chukker.
“There’s nothing like it. The beauty, the excitement of a polo match… It’s the most magical sport and I have the privilege to have discovered it.” – Jim Drury
A former football, basketball and baseball player, Drury is an athlete who discovered polo in his late 30s and has been tightly linked to the sport since then. He explained, “I’ve been playing polo as an amateur in Chicago for 40 years. It was a new athletic activity I took up 40 years ago after practicing three sports in high school: baseball, basketball and football. In college, I played baseball for Notre Dame.” He continued, “When I was in my mid 30s, I was looking for a new sport. I didn’t like golf that much; I missed the athleticism. A friend of mine started playing polo and invited me. I loved the sport right away. I learned how to ride better, bought two horses and hired a professional to improve my skills. Me and my friend then thought of having our own team and joined two professionals, Dick and John Coone, and built an 8-goal team. Then, I made my own 12-goal team and a 16-goal team. That was my entry to the high level. Polo has always kept me very young and incredibly fit.”
Drury took time to sit down with CLICKPOLOUSA and talk about his time playing at and managing Oak Brook Polo Club.
Drury’s polo career spanned 40 summers at Oak Brook Polo Club.
How did you become managing director of the Oak Brook Polo Club?
“I was probably the only patron not owning a polo field. By 2016, the village of Oak Brook was running the club, but they were struggling and losing money every year. So, I was introduced to Dan O’Leary and agreed to take over the club and help it become financially responsible. Six years later, the club has a thousand visitors every Sunday, like in the old days. The problem was that it was not being run like a business. We lowered the ticket price and raised the cost to give the spectator a different experience. Oak Brook has become very successful. This is where the U.S. Open was played from 1946 to 1978. Oak Brook won the U.S. Open six times during that time. There’s tremendous history here, we brought it back. For the 100th Anniversary celebrations, the Butler family came back. The children of Bo Butler came back for the final match.”
How did you revitalize the club?
“Polo is an under-marketed sport. It needs to be run like a business. In the old times, pros would come to the announcers table formally dressed in navy blue blazers, white shirts and black ties, and then go back and change. One thing we did was to start that tradition again. It’s a way of showing respect. We don’t treat people who come as spectators. They are our guests. One key to marketing polo is to treat spectators as guests and ensure they have a wonderful time. Not just play and go home. Now, players walk the entire circumference of the field and thank each of the spectators for coming, we take pictures. It may take half an hour, but it will market our sport, it will make people more involved in the sport. Personalized involvement at the club. If you are not doing this, you’re losing out. People should leave the club and say, ‘We had a wonderful time.’ The experience of your life. Nobody engages people as intimately as we have. That makes a difference.
Will you miss playing?
It’s only been two weeks, [but] I will miss it. I’m still very fit, I could still play. But it has been 40 summers fully committed to polo, except for rare occasions when I took a week off. I owe it to my family. I’m lucky to be healthy and fit, very lucky.”
Drury competing for Oak Brook Polo Club in the 2022 Butler International Cup at Oak Brook Polo Club.
What was the match against England like?
“It was a terrific match. Great Britain was ahead at the end of the first chukker, the end of the second chukker and at the end of the third chukker. We entered the last chukker down 6-4 and we came back to win 7-6. It was a tremendous match. I knew it was my final match, so I wouldn’t give up easily. Luckily, our pros Horacio Onetto and Tommy Collingwood came out very motivated at the last chukker and reverted the score with 50 seconds to go. We all wore black bands to honor Queen Elizabeth [and] both National Anthems were played before the match. It was very moving. British players told me they had never heard both National Anthems played back-to-back.”
What are your best memories as a polo player?
“Lifting a cup with my teammates – the one I relinquish the most is the Butler International Cup. Sitting in our tent before the game, planning the strategies at halftime. We had a wonderful team this year. Lifting the trophy last Sunday, after being behind the whole game, knowing it was my final match…. that was special, too. I had a horse last year that got kicked and had its leg broken in two places. Many would have put the horse down, but I told my vet John Coone to save him, even though it would be very expensive. He went through rehabilitation, started playing some lower goal practices and got him to play on Sunday. Twoey won Best Playing Pony. That was one of the most incredible moments.”
“One key to marketing polo is to treat spectators as guests and ensure they have a wonderful time. Not just play and go home. Now, players walk the entire circumference of the field and thank each of the spectators for coming, we take pictures. It may take half an hour, but it will market our sport, it will make people more involved in the sport.” – Jim Drury
What does polo mean to you?
“Polo is, in my opinion, the most wonderful sport in the world. The athletic partnership between man and animal cannot be attained in any other equine sport. We are thinking together. I feel one with that horse. A subtle movement is enough for the horse to know what you mean. There’s nothing like it. The beauty, the excitement of a polo match… It’s the most magical sport and I have the privilege to have discovered it. It’s the best kept secret.”
All photos courtesy of ©Andrew Meier.