“Way to go, Skippy!” reads the sign, drawn in blue and pink magic marker and nailed to a tree in front of a Bird Rock house. Its 22-year-old subject is in the backyard, celebrating with 100 of his friends and relatives the highlight of his life so far.
A week earlier, McCullough trounced 128 comers in a prestigious surfing competition in the Philippines that officially makes him, according to the World Surf League, the 75th best surfer in the world right now. (Before, he was ranked No. 148.)
McCullough’s performance at the 24th annual Siargao Cloud 9 — a six-day event that ended Oct. 3 — was the stuff of dreams. Slicing through six-foot tubes, McCullough easily beat Philippine local John Mark Tokong, the favorite to win, with a heat total of 12.17 out of a possible 20.
“All week, he was the guy to beat,” says McCullough, a 2014 La Jolla High graduate. “His heat totals were so much higher than everybody else’s, so I was nervous.”
But McCullough caught a break on his all-white Xanadu X22 board that Tokong — who scored only a 2.63 out of 20 — missed.
“This medium-sized wave just swung straight to me and (Tokong) was too far out to get inside of it,” McCullough says. “It was just a perfect wave. It went on forever. It was a crazy feeling, like wow, I’m in the finals and I got a wave that good? This might actually happen.”
As McCullough speaks, two friends hang not only on McCullough’s arms but his every word. They shout ‘Yeah, Skip!” whenever he finishes a sentence.
During a separate phone interview, John Rosemond, director of competition for the WindanSea Surf Club, called Siargao Cloud 9 “the largest event that a La Jolla surfer has won in a long time, in terms of global recognition.” (McCullough joined the club in high school.)
“Skip’s always surfed really well,” Rosemond said, “but now he’s a world-renown surfer at this point. It’s official.”
McCullough’s father, who floats around the party with a permanent smile, describes himself as “just out of my mind” about the win.
“We went there hoping he was going to do well,” Monty McCullough says. “But then, all of a sudden, he came up through the quarters and the semis all within about an hour or two. I was stunned.”
Although Monty surfs, he can’t claim credit for teaching his son how to. Oh, he had planned to, when Skip turned four or five. But Skip was already surfing, on his own, at age 2.
“I see this tiny little guy in diapers riding a wave and kind of ripping the thing,” Monty says. “So I ask my wife, ‘Is that Skip?’ And she goes: ‘Oh, you didn’t know?’”
McCullough says he still surfs WindanSea Beach every day whenever he’s home. However, he’s about to be home a lot less. The Siargao win earns McCullough a slot in the upcoming Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which runs Nov. 12-Dec. 20 on the north shore of Hawaii’s Oahu, where winter swells typically reach 50 feet.
“I’m finally in!” McCullough yells, clenching and raising his fist. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid. John John Florence, Kolohe Andino — now I get to go up against those guys? Win or lose, just to be able to say that will be awesome.”
And the prize money at that level would quadruple his $12,000 take from Siargao and — combined with his steadily accumulating endorsement deals — could lead to an indefinite hold placed on his gate and construction business, which he operates through his father’s landscaping office.
“Oh man,” McCullough says. “I don’t mind working, but if I could just surf and not have to lift a finger?”