STEPPING STONE: Thin man Machado shakes the rookies at stop three of the Fosters Pro Tour

“A stepping stone.” That’s what they’re calling – those surf industry execs behind the new and improved Foster’s Surf Tour. Today, stop three in an eight-event series kicked off just south of Oceanside’s north jetty for a muggy San Diego summer’s day.In the 1980’s, this small strip of coarse black sand placed between the Marine’s Camp Pendleton and the quickly growing suburbs of north San Diego county was infamous within the hardcore local surfing community. Each summer the most brilliant pros in the world — heroes like, Shaun Tomson, Tom Curren, Mark Occhilupo — would arrive when the beach would be packed with every hometown ripper. Then, and only then, would they come to town.The event was called the Stubbies Pro; it was an A-grade world tour event. In its time, it was the one-stop fitness test for every hottie within a hundred-mile radius to come and fine tune their stuff — not the least of which being a brash 17-year-old by the name of Brad Gerlach, whose 1985 win transformed him form an area shredder to a world-renowned touring pro. Then again, that was the {{{80}}}’s, and there hasn’t been a major world tour event in O-side since 1991.Not that you’d know that from today. With beach entries including names like Bruce Irons, the north jetty was dazzling with stars. And the surf? Well, it was meager, a soft south windswell but still pretty good. North Jetty’s known for its wedging peaks, you know. Plus the water was like a bathtub.But who cares, right? What about the pros? Well, the good news is that the Fosters tour is definitely serving as a stepping stone to the big leagues for our domestic rippers. The bad news for rookie pros came in the shape of 140-pound veteran and former ‘CT stylist Rob Machado. Why? Well, let’s sit next to Rob before his heat and find out. “Dude, look at that little left.” Kneeling next to his Al Merrick Flyer, Mob points to the opposite end of the beach from which everyone has surfed thus far. “Wrack! Wrack !” He emulates what he’d like to do, using a bit of hand-jive. “Cool.” The left peters onto the sand as he springs up, flipping the board into his grasp. Three minutes later, and he’s into a flimsy left that he manipulates into some kind of Peruvian left point complete with accelerating turns and even an old “Mob-O” head-dipper thrown in the inside reform. Score: 7.5 – the highest of the day. After some chill time, he finds another opportunity to go flow: wack, schwak! It’s vintage Rob once again, with the heat of the day. Which is not to take away from the 14-year-old Tanner Gudauskas of San Clemente. He nearly had Rob startled with a 7.0 and 6.25 of his own, a heat only comparable to one other surfer today, Santa Barbara’s Bobby Martinez, and he’s 21. No doubt, Rob’s one of the fastest, smoothest surfers to ever grace a board. But still, he’s 30 years old. In the face of US pro surfing you can take that for what you will, but by today’s test one fact ultimately stands: be it 14 or 21, if the rookies have come here looking for a stepping stone, it looks like they’re going to have to break Rob’s back. Hagan Kelley