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ON THE BEACH / MIKE REILLEY

Lynch and Professional Tour Return to Huntington Beach

May 22, 1994|MIKE REILLEY

After winning the 1991 Op Pro surfing championships in Huntington Beach, Australia's Barton Lynch referred to the host city as "a dump" and promptly left town.

And the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' world tour went with him.

With the surfing industry strapped because of financial problems, the ASP pulled up stakes three years ago and left Huntington Beach, vowing not to return until the Southern California city got its act together.

Finally, it has . . . and the tour is coming back.

Lynch and other top pro surfers are expected to compete in the $125,000 U.S. Open of Surfing, scheduled for Aug. 2-7 at the pier. It will be the first world-tour event on the U.S. mainland since the '91 Op Pro.

"I think it's the greatest thing to happen to the sport in the last five years," said ASP Executive Director Graham Cassidy, who was at Huntington State Beach last week for the Bud Pro Surf tour stop.

"The U.S. Open is the rebirth of surfing in North America. For a while, we had nada , and now, the pendulum is on an upswing."

The U.S. Open also could save the Op (July 27-31), which has struggled because of financial problems, dwindling crowds and competitor base the past two years.

Because the Op is scheduled a week before the U.S. Open, most of the top surfers come to town a week early to get used to wave conditions. In fact, 40 of the world's top 44 surfers have already committed to the Op, a four-star world-tour qualifying event.

The Op had been the showpiece of the world tour in California since the mid-1980s. But in 1992, the Irvine-based surfwear company sought legal protection from creditors and failed to come up with the $120,000 purse required for a world tour event.

Instead, the Op experimented with a team format for a year before joining the world qualifying series last year. Meanwhile, crowds that once numbered nearly 35,000 to 40,000 dwindled to 10,000-15,000.

"Op officials made a major mistake with that team format," Cassidy said. "They should have had the team competition as well as the individual heats, like they did last year. Instead, they wound up trying to explain a new format when the people really wanted to see man-on-man heats."

Cassidy blamed a struggling economy, in particular the surfing industry, for the absence of a major contest in California the past two years.

But the world tour recently landed a major umbrella sponsor--Coca-Cola--and the U.S. Open has a number of non-surfing company sponsors, including 1-800-COLLECT phone service and Prime Ticket, which will televise the event.

"The timing is perfect," he said, "with the new 'Endless Summer II' movie coming out, the TV coverage, the world longboard surfing championships coming to Malibu and the attention the Bud Pro Surfing tour is getting."

Cassidy said the world tour has a three-year contract with the U.S. Open, adding that the tour could expand to new venues, possibly in Orange County, in the next few years.

"This isn't a make or break year by any means," he said. "It's only the first year of a three-year phase. Our goal is to get this started, then make it a little bigger, and then move outward."

Cassidy didn't rule out expanding the world tour to another event on the U.S. mainland, possibly at Sebastian Inlet, Fla.

In 1991, the world tour had three California stops--Huntington Beach, Oceanside and Santa Cruz--but the dwindling economy eliminated all three by 1992.

"We would prefer to have one contest on the East Coast and one on the West Coast," Cassidy said. "The East Coast is the biggest surf market in the world, so it's reasonable to say our tour would want to showcase surfing there."

Cassidy also wouldn't rule out another world-tour event being scheduled in California in the future. He added that the possible success or failure of the U.S. Open won't have any impact on another tour site developing on the West Coast.

"If we have two contests in California in the future," he said, "I don't think it would be in a place like Oceanside. If you're going to put a spot here, it has to be Santa Cruz or Lower Trestles. We're trying to schedule more world-tour events at the quality surf breaks."

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Add surfing: World tour officials are considering a format in which the top three finishers at the Op would automatically advance to the U.S. Open. A fourth qualifying spot would be determined in a one-on-one heat between former Op champion Mark Occhilupo of Australia and three-time Op champion Tommy Curren of Santa Barbara.

Op and U.S. Open officials also plan to charge admission for bleacher and pier seating for the final days of each contest. Seating on the beach is still free, but there will be a $5 per day charge for the last two days of the Op. There also will be a charge for seating on each of the final three days of the U.S. Open, with a price yet to be determined.

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