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SURFING

It's been a sweet ride for Joel Parkinson

The Australian appears headed for his first title after winning three of first five contests on pro surfing's elite World Tour. Six events remain, including this week's Hurley Pro in San Clemente.

September 13, 2009|PETE THOMAS

Sometime in late fall, perhaps in Portugal or Hawaii, Joel Parkinson will be crowned world surfing champion.

It will mark the first time the personable Australian has won the title after nine mostly successful seasons on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' elite World Tour.

"It's way too early to start thinking about that," he says, dismissively. "It's too early for me until it's over. I'm just going about my day-to-day stuff and not worrying about the big picture."

Parkinson -- or Parko, as he's referred to on tour -- is in Southern California for the Hurley Pro, which runs today through Saturday at Lower Trestles in San Clemente.

And it's hardly a bold prediction to place him in the top spot after this contest -- which he won in 2004 -- or (if he clinches early) before season's end. The powerful yet fluid regular-footer will enter the Trestles lineup with three triumphs after five competitions.

With six contests remaining, he holds a commanding lead over Florida's C.J. Hobgood, the runner-up, and Brazil's Adriano de Souza, who's ranked third and now lives in San Clemente.

Parkinson, 28, also has benefited from the slow start of nine-time world champ Kelly Slater, the defending event titlist, who's ranked eighth.

Parkinson, however, is taking nothing for granted and is not discounting Slater. "He's still phenomenal and a huge threat to the tour," Parkinson says of the sport's most successful athlete. "And he's probably still the best surfer to walk the planet."

Slater, 37, on his Aussie rival: "Joel doesn't seem as happy this year to many of us, but his priorities are clear."

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Mind over matter

Parkinson, who has brought his wife and two young daughters to Southern California, may be singularly focused, but he credits a more relaxed attitude in the water for his success this year.

"I used to be tense or nervous before heats," he says. "But I've learned to get rid of the negative stuff and just stay relaxed and positive -- and it seems to be working for me."

Slater, who has won the title three of the last four years, can attest to the importance of that approach.

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Winds of change

Much of the buzz during the Hurley Pro will regard an alternative tour allegedly taking shape and threatening to change the look of top-level pro surfing.

It's rumored to involve Slater and ESPN as principals and will use television to deliver the sport to mainstream audiences. (The ASP tour utilizes live webcasts to deliver its product.)

Neither Slater nor ESPN will comment until details are in place, and if other top surfers know much about it, they're not letting on either.

Says Parkinson: "I didn't even hear about it until two weeks ago and I still don't know much about it. I just go about my own business, for what I want this year."

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Bucking the trend

The high-performance waves at Trestles make the Hurley Pro -- formerly the Boost Mobile Pro -- one of the surfers' favorite tour stops.

The money is good too. Event sponsor Hurley has boosted the first-place prize to $100,000 (adding $60,000 to the ASP's winner's share), making this the richest World Tour event in history.

Says contest director Pat O'Connell: "We don't do a lot of big surf events, but the ones we do, we want to make sure it's the best experience possible for the athletes and fans. Having an elevated prize purse adds to the excitement on the beach and in the water, so it's worth it to us."

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Wild cards in play

Huntington Beach surfer Brett Simpson, who is ranked eighth on the qualifying circuit as he aspires to make the 2010 World Tour, is one of three wild cards and probably has the best chance of advancing to later rounds.

(The others are Rob Machado, an iconic free surfer and Hurley-sponsored athlete, and Kai Barger, world junior champion.)

Simpson, 24, got in by winning the Hurley Pro Trials during the recent U.S. Open at Huntington Beach Pier. He also won the Open.

He'll use the Hurley Pro to gauge his ability against the world's best.

"But I'm not really going to pressure myself," he says. "More pressure is on them because they need the results. But I'm definitely going to work my butt off and pretend as if I need to make some heats."

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On the Web

The Hurley Pro will air via webcast at www.thehurleypro.com and on www.fuel.tv, which will begin its high-definition broadcast during the final two days of competition.

There's also a stream on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hurley. Online fans will be able to vote on the winner of an expression session to be held, most likely, on Thursday or Friday.

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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Surfing competition

HURLEY PRO, ASP WORLD TOUR

Where: Lower Trestles at San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente.

When: Competition window is today through Saturday. Finals probably will be held Saturday.

Who: World's top 45 surfers, plus three wild-card entries.

Defending champion: Kelly Slater, who is going for a three-peat and aspiring to win his 10th world title.

Admission: Free -- but parking is a major hassle unless you arrive early.

-- Pete Thomas

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