The cheers were booming from the beach as San Clemente’s Pat Gudauskas went up against reigning Hurley Pro champ Kelly Slater.
But unlike most heats with Slater as the star, the applause wasn’t for the 11-time world champ.
Contest organizers make a call each morning on whether the contest will run based on waves and weather. Take the 5 south, exit Basilone Road. At the top of the exit ramp, veer right. About 100 yards after the overpass, turn right off the road. Enter the yellow gates by the State Parks Beach sign. Parking cost $20.
“I could hear them in the water when sets were coming, it was just like a roar,” Gudauskas said.
The huge upset had bigger implications than just the Hurley Pro title, which would have been Slater’s fourth consecutive had he won it again this year. Slater’s elimination could have a huge impact on the end-of-the year World Title race. Slater is leading the pack – but the others in contention could creep up in points and overtake Slater’s lead with his early exit at Hurley Pro.
Guduaskas dominated during the heat against Slater, posting up a high 8.5 score and then surfing with smart strategy in his wave selection. Slater put up a fight, at one point the difference was just .77 between the two surfers’ scores. As the clock ticked down and Slater couldn’t pull off the score he needed, Gudauskas slapped the water up to the sky, a big smile splashed across his face as he rode to shore. A crowd of supporters mobbed him on the sand and slapped high fives at the major victory.
“It’s tricky conditions; Kelly is the best in the world, best ever,” Gudauskas said. “I couldn’t be more stoked to beat him at home.”
Gudauskas is always touted as a favorite to win this event because it is his home break, and he grew up surfing here. But strangely, he’s never got this far in the event. And he needs the big result to get back on tour – he’s ranked number 36th in the ratings, and is surfing as an alternate because he didn’t make the cut this year.
“When you get Kelly, you just have to go for broke,” Gudauskas said. “I’m just hungry to keep surfing Lowers.”
Slater, visibly disappointed in the loss, said he was happy for Gudauskas.
“Pat is a great surfer. He’s been on the wrong end of those scores many times – perhaps more than anyone – so I’m glad to see him get a win,” he said. “I am stoked for Pat, he needs a result and to build his confidence. Hopefully he wins.”
Slater was already thinking about what it means for his World Title contention.
“That’s three bad results for me,” he said. “I blew it… You don’t want to lose early in this contest. It’s a bad place to go down.”
Other Orange County surfers weren’t as lucky as Gudauskas.
The day kicked off with Huntington Beach’s Brett Simpson going up against South African Jordy Smith in 2-3 foot waves, and both came out swinging during their 35-minute heat to try to do their best in the small conditions.
Smith, ranked fourth in the world and a contender for the world title, started off the action by getting a high 7.83, but it wasn’t long before Simpson answered back with a solid lefthander, pulling off five big turns for a 7.60 score. Simpson then was able to nab an 8.27 – but Smith was able to out surf Simpson by posting up a high 9.17, one of the highest scores of the day, to win the heat.
Simpson’s frustration showed as he put his hands up in frustration while looking out at the flat ocean just before the horn sounded.
Simpson said he felt as if he surfed strong, and with a baby on the way he’s just trying to stay sane.
“It burns deep down inside, but whatever; I get to surf good waves,” he said. “It’s frustrating no matter which way you slice it.”
The fireworks continued as Brazilian surfer Gabriel Medina went up against former world champ CJ Hobgood.
Just as the buzzer was about to sound, he thought to himself: “alls I want is a chance.” Then a wave appeared, and Hobgood surfed smooth on the wave, doing two floaters above the wave and incorporated solid turns to nab a 7.8 score – enough to win the heat.
“It was pretty emotional; I was pretty pumped at the end of the heat,” he said. “That’s a microcosm of my year this year – when it’s close and I need something, its been going my way.”
In the end, it was experience over youth that won out, though Hobgood said he likes having the youngsters on tour.
“It’s fun watching these kids,” he said. “They’re just free-styling and sometimes us old guy over-think it.”
He said his strategy was to stay positive.
“If you look at the ocean for too long, the negative thoughts can start to creep in,” he said. “Just keep those away and keep smiling.”
San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino and Australia’s Taj Burrow both surfed well and made the best out of the small conditions, but in the end Burrow had the upper hand.
Burrow, ranked number five in the world, said he put more effort in this event than any other this year.
“I just really want to win, basically,” he said.
He knew winning against Andino wouldn’t be easy. The younger surfer had won against him at two previous events.
“I knew those stats in the back of my head. He ruined my Europe leg; he killed me in France and Portugal,” Burrow said about Andino. “It’s always a tough heat because I’m friends with him and I want to see him do well; this is his home break I know how well he surfs here, especially in waves this size. He’s deadly.”