Rob Machado is a former world championship runner-up and is among the most popular veteran surfers on the professional tour, but at the Honda Element U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach this week he's having to work his way through qualifying heats as if he were a rookie.
In normal circumstances, Machado would be seeded among the top half dozen competitors. However, he did not accumulate enough seeding points during a hiatus from the tour last year, then turned his entry form in too late to be considered for a wild-card berth.
Although the scenario has led to an extra long week for Machado, it has been a big draw for spectators who have watched him work the waves like few of his counterparts. It hasn't taken long for those on the sand to calculate the difference between a surfer the caliber of Machado, who once won the prestigious Pipeline Masters, and those trying to break in, or hang on, to their professional careers.
"It's good for the sport and good for the sponsors to see their guy out there doing a good job for so long," former world champion Sunny Garcia said.
What happened by accident is now being considered, in some unofficial circles, as a possible design. In order to peak interest in the early rounds, contest directors could designate -- perhaps by rotation -- a top surfer to work his way up from the bottom.
Don't expect it happen -- at least not anytime soon.
"In surfing, athletes have a lot of say in what goes on," said Dante Giuliano, contest director for the U.S. Open of Surfing. "Why would a guy work hard all year long just to slog it out all week?"
The biggest deterrent: the effect it might have on the amount of money surfers can earn. Since it largely depends on how high they finish in competition, putting themselves in position to be eliminated in an early heat is too much of a financial risk.
"It could affect the amount of money a surfer makes," Garcia said.
The two-to-four foot sets of waves that arrived Thursday weren't the only reason for optimism as surfers looked toward the weekend. The sight of Sean Collins working his way through the competitor's area was also a signal that things are brewing.
"I usually don't have anything good to say," said Collins, who owns Surfline, a surf forecasting service based across the street from the Huntington Beach Pier.
Collins predicts this weekend will bring some of the best waves in years for the closing days of a Huntington Beach surf event. Sets averaging three to five feet are expected to arrive today.
"It's not real big, but it will improve the performance level," he said.
The southern hemisphere swell is expected to last through Saturday, with a second swell keeping conditions solid for Sunday's final round.
"The timing has been really good," Collins said. "So many years, the waves have been good during the week but were gone by Sunday."
Comedian Joe Piscopo donned a surfboard and wetsuit on Thursday and took lessons with professional surfer Holly Beck, all part of a skit for the "Best Damn Sports Show Period" to be aired Tuesday.
Piscopo, who claims Long Beach Island in New Jersey as his home break, was a little uneasy about surfing Huntington Beach for the first time.
"This is the Pacific Ocean, the big-time stuff," he said. "I've got Holly Beck watching me, but I'm going to ask a couple lifeguards to watch me too."