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Garcia Has Good Luck With These Judges

Veteran advances in the U.S. Open of Surfing, his last event before heading for court to be sentenced for tax fraud.

July 27, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

For Sunny Garcia, there remains one more chance for glory before the prison door clangs shut.

The legendary surfer from Hawaii, who came out of retirement to compete in the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach this week, impressed the judges enough to advance through the round of 96 on Wednesday, ensuring himself at least one more heat in a high-profile event that runs through Sunday.

Soon after the U.S. Open, Garcia will face a different kind of judge and, he believes, things won't go nearly as well.

"There's no question I'm going to do jail time," Garcia said, after a heat in which he finished second to World Championship Tour rookie Bobby Martinez but edged WCT veteran Damien Hobgood and Brazil's Eneko Acero to advance. "So I'm just going to enjoy myself before the government takes control of my life."

Garcia, 36, pleaded guilty to tax fraud last month in a San Diego federal court and faces up to three years in prison and $100,000 in fines for failing to report more than $417,000 in prize earnings dating to 1996.

The former world champion, who has earned more than $1 million in contest winnings since turning pro in 1986, is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 28.

Though he has blamed personal accountants for his troubles, Wednesday he said, "Had I learned earlier in life to take care of my own [finances], this never would have happened."

Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, president of the 30-year-old Assn. of Surfing Professionals, said that to his knowledge this was the first such incident involving an ASP athlete.

"It definitely came as a shock to hear that Sunny was in serious trouble for tax evasion," Bartholomew said via e-mail from ASP headquarters in Australia. "Sunny is a very powerful character in the sport, an intimidating competitor and at times an imposing figure for officials, but he is basically a good guy and has an exemplary record in society."

Times have changed since Garcia emerged as a budding star in the mid-1980s. Surfers then were paid paltry sums. Many became pros straight out of high school and were too caught up in the glamorous lifestyle to pay attention to taxes when they finally had lucrative paydays.

"Sunny's generation was the first to land big contracts, so there was no need for all of the above back then," Bartholomew said. "There was no money in the sport and the surf industry was tiny. There was little or no guidance from sponsors; it was literally a case of a kid getting a wheelbarrow full of cash and then they were on their own."

These days, with elite-level pros earning six-figure salaries from surf-industry sponsors, and with substantial prize money on the line, even young prospects have agents and accountants. Prize money, generally, is direct-deposited into bank accounts and easier to monitor.

Still, the 24-year-old Martinez said, "Everyone knows you have to pay taxes; if you don't do it there might be consequences."

Garcia knows all about consequences. He came from a broken home on Oahu's rugged west wide. His father moved out when Garcia was 6, leaving his mother to care for him on a meager housekeeper's salary.

Fighting got him kicked out of school often. The ocean became his refuge, surfing a means of escape. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and turned pro at 17.

He made an instant impact. He was powerful and fearless -- an intimidating presence in the lineup and on the beach. He became notorious for his fiery temper, but it was usually directed at judges and rarely at other surfers.

When he won his world title in 2000, after enduring a nasty divorce with his first wife and losing custody of his children, he proclaimed it to be the culmination of the most difficult battle of his life.

Now in his first year of so-called retirement, Garcia finds himself in another monumental struggle, yet somewhat relieved to have put everything into the open.

That was apparent Wednesday as he took to the water in what was clearly the toughest heat of the day. Competing in steady 2- to 3-foot waves, Hobgood took the early lead. Garcia was in last place before launching a back-handed attack on the heat's largest wave, scoring a nine out of a possible 10 to move into first.

"In my mind I'm still one of the world's best surfers and these guys got a long way to catch up," he said afterward.

Martinez was able to win the heat with a two-wave score of 12.83, to Garcia's 12.67, and said of his rival:

"Sunny is everyone's hero. He's been around so long. He won a world title and has accomplished so many things. He's won everywhere and to have him in a heat because he's retired ... that don't mean he still can't win. So you can't count him out -- ever."

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