Surf City, Here We Go

Australia steals professional surfing . . . and Texas still sucks

Illustration by Bob AulYou don't have to be a surfer to feel a little sad that the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) has closed its international headquarters in Huntington Beach, a place we've come to think of as "Surf City," and moved them to Australia, a place we've come to realize is "What Would Happen if Texas Were a Continent."

It's okay for everybody to mourn because in Southern California, that's who surfing belongs to—everybody. Surfing has become part of our collective identity, part of our natural panorama, and part of the reason it's so hard to find a parking place at the beach. You don't have to actually ride a wave to be a part of that.

In fact, it's when you get beyond the pack of athletic extremists with the spare time, disposable income and mysterious inclination to bother with boards and waxes and roof racks and ankle leashes and paddling out and riding in and falling off, again and again, forever and ever, amen—it's beyond all that when surfing pays its most meaningful tribute to what Southern California is all about: image.

Around here, most of us like "surfing" the same way we like "Hollywood" or "Orange" County, and the reasons do not include contact with actual waves or glitz or citrus. We inhale them as broad concepts and adorn them with specific accessories. Surfing became our shared birthright when it was bequeathed to us by the likes of Gidget and Brian Wilson and Katin—the people who first sold it to us in books, movies, TV, song and fashion.

So when the ASP—the organization that conducts the world's most prominent pro surfing tour—moved its main office out of Orange County, we rightly felt as if we had lost a little piece of ourselves. A little of the way we like to think of ourselves, anyway. And when the ASP moved to Australia, well, we just lost it—period.

Australia? Well, sure, it has surfers. So does Texas—and if the ASP were simply looking to relocate in a place populated with big-talkin', flat-accented galoots whose "culture" consists of a perverse pride in their obsession with all things large, loud and loutish, it could have found office space in Galveston. If it's pinched-faced heroes, weird animals and funky food they were seeking, why did Paul Hogan, kangaroos and Vegemite win out over George W. Bush, armadillos and chicken-fried steak? The only way Australia is better than Texas is that it's farther away.

But let's get this straight: we didn't want ASP headquarters straying from Huntington Beach for any reason, and none of those factors had anything to do with why it did. There was only one issue: Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, 44, the onetime world-champion surfer who was recently appointed ASP president and CEO, is from Australia.

"Moving the offices down there just made sense," says Peter Whittaker, the ASP's new tour manager, whose nasal intonation reveals that he also comes from the land of Rupert Murdoch. "It will be more convenient for Rabbit."

By all accounts, Rabbit Bartholomew is a wonderful guy and a pro-surfing pioneer who deserves some special consideration. "Rabbit was the first guy to write 'pro surfer' on his passport, where it asks for 'occupation,'" Whittaker says. "He's a surfer's surfer. He's seen all of the changes the sport has been through. He was a world champion back in 1978, and since then, he has been a tournament director, a coaching director in Australia and an ASP executive board member. He brings a lot of passion. He brings a lot of credibility. He brings a lot of respect." And now, Bartholomew won't have to bring all that through customs quite as often.

An easier commute may seem like a slight and self-centered reason for relocating ASP's international headquarters, but it doesn't seem to have gotten anyone's wet suit in a bunch.

"ASP is a global organization in terms of our competitions, and everybody is accessible by e-mail," Whittaker says with a shrug. "These days, I don't think the physical location of the office really has much of an effect one way or the other."

That's how longtime local surfer Steve Pezman feels, too. Kind of.

"It doesn't really matter where the ASP is headquartered," says Pezman, who publishes the Surfer's Journal out of San Clemente, "because competitive, professional surfing doesn't have anything to do with why most people surf."

How's that?

"Surfing is this ethereal thing," Pezman continues. "But the ASP likes to see pro surfing as if it were pro football. It doesn't surprise me that it is moving to Australia because the Australians seem to tend toward an aggressive, overcompensating nature—about trophies, women and money, something that one of them once described to me as a 'psychic cringe'—that has brought them to the forefront of structured surfing.

"I don't mean this as a derogatory thing. I don't want to come off as being mean. The Australians have done a lot for the organized aspect of the sport. But lots of us who surf aren't fans of that. Competitive surfing is just the easiest form of packing the sport to sell clothes. Heck, in that regard, Huntington Beach is the original home to commercialism in surfing. That's why ASP was there for a while. But now pro surfing is going for even more commercialism, which is why it's going to Australia. I'm not gonna cry about that. I say, let 'em have it."

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