Ever since the Beach Boys arrived on the music scene in 1961, Southern California has been recognized as a nesting place for the surfing lifestyle. The region just hasn't produced many great surfers in recent years.
Those who have honed their skills in local waters have struggled mightily to reach the exclusive World Championship Tour, getting squeezed out by droves of Australians, Brazilians, South Africans and Kelly Slater-led Floridians. Since the mid-1990s, no more than two surfers from Southern California have qualified for the WCT in the same year, and only eight new faces have made the transition since 1997.
This year could be a turning point, however.
As the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing continues today through Sunday at the Huntington Beach Pier, five native Southern Californians are ranked among the top 15 on the World Qualifying Series tour. The top 16 at season's end qualify for the 45-man WCT.
Patrick Gudauskas of San Clemente is No. 1 at the halfway point of the season, Nathaniel Curran of Oxnard is No. 4, Nathan Yeomans of San Clemente is No. 8, Austin Ware of Solana Beach is No. 10 and Brett Simpson of Huntington Beach is No. 15.
The six-star U.S. Open of Surfing is the highest-rated WQS event on the North American mainland, meaning a high finish would bump them into excellent position toward qualifying for the WCT.
Local knowledge is expected to come in handy.
"I'm ready," Simpson said. "I think this is where I can do the most damage."
If Simpson can maintain or better his position during the second half of the season, he would become only the third surfer from Huntington Beach to qualify for the WCT, joining Jeff Deffenbaugh (1995) and Tim Reyes (2004).
Gudauskas is in position to become only the second American to finish atop the WQS at season's end, joining Slater in 1994. His traveling partners include Yeomans and Ware. Gudauskas was ranked 47th at the end of last year, Yeomans was 64th and Ware 153rd.
"It's an individual sport, but it's nice to have that camaraderie," said Ware, who lived in Riverside until he was 15.
Peter Townend, a former world champion, publisher of Surfing Magazine and head coach of the USA Surf team, said the early success this season was spawned years ago with the redevelopment of the domestic junior programs.
Townend also pointed to the first event of this season, the O'Neill SI Pro at Sebastian Inlet, Fla., as an excellent jump-start. The contest was added to the qualifying series in 2005 and has since been upgraded from a three-star event to a five-star.
Gudauskas posted the biggest victory of his career at Sebastian Inlet in January, defeating fellow San Clemente native and traveling partner Mike Losness in two- to three-foot surf. Curran reached the semifinals and Yeomans the quarterfinals, giving them a valuable head start as well.
Gudauskas said it was also a way to stack up qualifying points without running up a big debt on his credit card.
"You can get a good result for only a $300 plane ticket," he said.
Gudauskas can expect to spend only slightly less in gas money this week. He said he's planning to commute to the U.S. Open from his hillside home in San Clemente.
At least he'll have the comfort of sleeping in his own bed.
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Assn. of Surfing Professionals
* What: Honda U.S. Open of Surfing.
* Where: South side of Huntington Beach Pier.
* When: Today through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (approximately).
* Who: Most of the top men and women from the World Qualifying Series tour, as well as World Championship Tour members Tim Reyes of Huntington Beach, Chris Ward of San Clemente and Taylor Knox of Carlsbad. The women's field includes former world champions Stephanie Gilmore and Layne Beachley of Australia and Sofia Mulanovich of Peru. Competitions also are scheduled in men's and women's juniors and longboard.
* Defending men's champion: C.J. Hobgood.
* Additional information: usopenofsurfing.com or go211.com.
Source: Los Angeles Times