Huntington Beach needed a hero yesterday. After years of cross-boarding confusion, the US Open finally refocused Surf City into…well, Surf City again. Gone was the distracting “{{{Soul}}} Bowl” and its army of rollerbladers, gone was the thinly veiled flea market behind the scaffolding, hawking everything from tattoos to hair care products. Or at least it seemed like they were gone. Because stretching from Ruby’s on the Pier to Brookhurst Street was an estimated crowd of {{{80}}},000, banging thundersticks and screaming for everything that maneuvered in the lined-up, overhead surf. As longtime vet Mike Parsons said, “I’m having Op Pro flashbacks.” But unlike the Op Pro, which usually had one clear protagonist (Tom Curren), this year’s Open was full of candidates for crowd favorite. The obvious call was Rob Machado who, due to mysterious circumstances, was forced to surf in Heat One, Round One (the round of 288) last Sunday. Seven days and eleven heats later, the former US Open champ and world runner-up finally ran out of gas against in-style ‘CTers Cory Lopez and Andy Irons in the first semi. After the heat, Rob had that dazed look like he’d been wearing a colored jersey too long. “Those heats are all a blur to me now,” he said.

One heat he won’t forget is the They Will Surf Again expression session with Jesse Billauer. Machado and Billauer teamed up once again to push Jesse — a former rising talent who broke his neck while surfing — into a few bombs from out the back. Watching Jesse streak across an overhead left made all of the talent in the expression session — including the Irons brothers, Kelly Slater and Tim Curran — fade into background noise.The fans also banged away for 21-year-old qualifying hopeful Bobby Martinez. The Santa Barbara goofyfoot has been teetering on the edge of breakthrough all year after an injury-plagued ’02. He started the season off with a second in Brazil, but has been treading water ever since. At Huntington, though, he started swimming again with some huge, last-minute heroics. In the round of 64, fourth-place Martinez rocketed to second with an impossible, sand-sucking tube to foamy, doggy-door exit worth a 9.0. In the semifinals, he did it again — this time with 10 seconds left, this time on his backhand. Second place Ben Bourgeois jockeyed him out of a wave and left him solo as one last right wedge shifted out of the pilings. One tight, backside arc, a little bobble on the second turn and then, with nothing to lose, he launched 3 feet out and landed without a splash. When they announced his advancing 8.17, Bobby leapt in the shorebreak and may as well have kicked his heels together twice. Now in striking range for WCT qualification, he later called the announcement one of the best moments of his life.