Earlier this week, I got in a debate with my normally-astute-but-in-this-case-very-wrong colleague, features editor Justin Housman, about whether or not the Surf Ranch Pro should be part of the regular Tour schedule, with the points earned going toward the title. He said "Of course," I said "Of course not," and we called it a day (you can read our discussion here, and yes, we are still friends). But while I still don't think that this bizarro-world format has any place alongside the rest of the Tour stops as a title-affecting event, I will say that it's thoroughly novel (in surfing) and actually pretty awesome.
This started to dawn on me yesterday as I sat poolside, finishing my second very-strong Paloma, which curbed my general wave-pool cynicism and allowed me to properly appreciate a certain large South African flying past the barrel sections on a right and a left to throw down an impressive alley-oop and rodeo. After Jordy's runs, for the remainder of the day, Julian Wilson, Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo and others all did the same thing: they looked at the leaderboard and realized the only way into that top eight was to light the pool on fire (figuratively, although alley-ooping through a flaming ring will certainly be part of this event eventually).
It took me that long to realize because the format takes a long time to actually get interesting. Before those eight slots are occupied by dazzling scores, nobody is really pushing themselves past their comfort zones—and for the top 34, all of whom can thread shoulder-high, Kirra-like tubes in their sleep, the barrel is as comfy as a well-worn recliner. But there's clearly a limit to what the judges will give for tube time, so from here on out that end barrel is irrelevant. If a surfer has any plans to make the finals, or win the event, they need to throw everything at every section.
Sure, the pool takes out the randomness of the ocean (and therefore a certain type of drama) out of the equation, and all criticisms leveled at that are completely fair. But in place of oceanic drama, a new kind of drama emerges in the pool—the kind we typically only see in those magical ocean heats when the waves provide ample opportunity, and two competitors continually one-up each other, passing the lead back and forth. In the leaderboard format, as you approach the end, the tension doesn't release after each heat, it only builds as it gets harder and harder for those outside the top eight to break in.
Don't get me wrong, the wave pool is still a sideshow, and, in my mind, has no place as a regular event on Tour. But, hey, sideshows can be entertaining as hell, and this format allows us to see the most competitive surfers in the world push themselves in a new way, and there's something to be said for that.