South Africa’s world No3-ranked Jordy Smith posted the highest heat total on Monday’s opening day of action in the Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons, the final stop on the 2017 World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour (CT) and the third gem of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (VTCS).
Competing in incredible two-to-three metre Pipeline barrels at Oahu, Hawaii, Smith found two unbelievably hollow tubes on the right-breaking Backdoor section of the reef to earn excellent scores of 8.67 and 7.90 that left his Australian opponents Bede Durbidge and Ethan Ewing in a combo situation where they were unable to overtake him with one ride.
The performance was an ideal confidence booster for Smith who needs to reach the final of the season-ending event and for rankings leader John John Florence (HAW) and current No2 Gabriel Medina (BRA) to bow out early in order for the South African to clinch his maiden world title.
‘I think the noise is pretty quiet,’ said Smith. ‘I don’t really get too deep into the pressure and quite frankly it really boils down to those two guys (Florence and Medina) losing out early, but you never know. If they wobble then I’ll put my head down and give it a go.’
Florence, who was loudly cheered by the partisan home crowd as he entered the water, started his world title campaign with a solid 13.50 (out of a possible 20) scoreline to take top position over Pipe Invitational winner Dusty Payne (HAW) and Brazil’s Wiggolly Dantas (BRA).
Wearing the Jeep Leader yellow jersey, Florence looked confident and in rhythm at his home break and kept busy throughout the 30-minute match-up to secure his place in Round 3 and move one step closer to defending his World Title.
‘I feel like a little kid again doing this event, just getting to surf Pipe with no one out,’ said Florence. ‘The support here makes me even more psyched. Just coming down the beach earlier and everyone screaming – it just makes me more excited.
‘Coming into Pipe this year is a lot different than last year because last year I felt more relaxed having the title already. So this year is a little different preparation.’
South African-born Benji Brand has had a phenomenal season in his adopted home base of Hawaii, clinching the WSL Hawaii/Tahiti Nui Regional title and then earning a wildcard into the Pipe Masters when he finished runner-up in the Pipe Invitational.
The 21-year-old, who grew up surfing in Kommetjie and represented SA in several junior international events, took an early lead over Medina and fellow Brazilian Miguel Pupo.
Pupo moved up into second place with a near-perfect 9.93, the highest single-wave score of the event so far, for a late takeoff into a cavernous Pipeline barrel and narrow exit. Medina also put on the pressure with an excellent 8.50 but Brand continued to hold the lead.
In the end it was Pupo, who is ranked No23 and battling for requalification, who stole the win to advance to Round 3 with a 4.90 during an exchange in the final minute, sending Medina and Brand to elimination Round 2.
Eleven-time WSL Champion and seven-time Billabong Pipe Master Kelly Slater (USA) made a triumphant return to competition, wearing a contest jersey for the first time since July when he injured his foot in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.
‘I give the foot about 65%,’ commented Slater. ‘I’ve missed competition but after so many years of non-stop day in, day out, week in and week out, it’s been kind of nice to have a few months off. It’s nice to get back, but it’s nice to get away from something that you love and get back and appreciate it.’
Picture of Smith deep inside the barrel at Backdoor during his Round 1 heat victory courtesy of WSL/Cestari