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The Rip Curl Pro & Professional Surfing

At this time, Warbrick and Singer approached the Australian Surfriders Association – who ran the annual Bells Beach Easter contest – offering to make it Australia’s first professional surfing competition.

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This was a braver move than it sounds in the 1990s. While major league sports such as tennis and golf had embraced professionalism in the 1960s, competitive surfing in the early 1970s was still in its embryonic stage, with only a few dedicated amateur administrators and no sponsorship support. (In the late 1960s there were several crude attempts at establishing professional events, and a more sophisticated effort by Smirnoff Vodka, but the sport remained essentially amateur until Australia showed the way.)

The first Rip Curl Pro in 1973 was very small beer indeed, with surfers competing for cash prizes which amounted to little more than their petrol and living expenses, and considerably less than their airfares! But the contest, won by the legendary Michael Peterson, set the wheels of the professional train in motion.

By 1974 companies like Rip Curl and Coca-Cola sponsored the first Australian professional tour. The contests attracted most of the finest surfers from around the world and created a new high profile for surfing from the beach to the boardroom.

While the story of the Bells Beach Easter Classic is a major chapter in the history of Australian surfing, the first Rip Curl Pro is the real beginning of the story of surfing’s conversion to professionalism.

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It’s difficult to appreciate, more than 25 years on, just what a radical step it was for the Bells contest to go pro in 1973. While sports like tennis and golf had had professional arms for a decade, it had only been five years earlier that tennis finally allowed professionals to play at Wimbledon, thus beginning that sport’s open era.

Media baron Kerry Packer would introduce full-blown professionalism to cricket in 1977, but Rip Curl’s bold announcement four years earlier was history-making. And there were many within surfing who deplored the introduction of the cash culture, particularly at Bells, which in its own way was as hallowed a playing field as Wimbledon.

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the Bells meet had been frequently blessed with big, powerful waves which sorely tested the skill and courage of Australia’s leading surfers and big wave specialists. In its very early days big wave legends like Bob Pike, Peter Troy and Nipper Williams would dust down their guns and perform in the only Australian contest that regularly offered waves which matched Hawaii’s for size and power.

Of course, not every  year was vintage, but in 1965 the swell peaked at almost 20 feet and in 1969 most of the contest was held in superb surf nudging 10 feet.  With conditions like this it was natural that Bells should become the number one performance forum in the country.

So in 1973 the Rip Curl Pro became Australia’s first professional surfing event, with the country’s best competing for beer money which was spent immediately in the local pub.

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Despite the fears of purists, money didn’t taint surfing’s party of the year. It couldn’t. There wasn’t enough, for one thing, and for another, the day of the serious professional surfer had not yet dawned.

By the mid-1970s the Rip Curl Pro had become one of the high points of the international pro circuit – a party event with good waves more often than not. Surfer and film-maker Jack McCoy had a restaurant called “The Summer House” and between there, the pub and houses of the leading local lights, the partying never stopped.

But the Rip Curl Pro was more than a good time in the mud – along with the clean autumn swells, the Easter weekend seemed to attract more than its fair share of foul weather. It was a serious surfing forum. Surfers like Jeff Hakman, Terry Fitzgerald, Paul Neilsen, Wayne Lynch, Maurice Cole, Shaun Tomson and Reno Abellira were often superb in clean, overhead conditions, while old stagers like Nat Young, Peter Drouyn and Rod Brooks often saved their best for the Rip Curl Pro.

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By 1977 there was a new school of power performers, led by Narrabeen’s Simon Anderson, who was unstoppable that year with rail-to-rail turns and his amazing slashbacks. By 1980 there was yet another school, this time led by Tom Carroll and Curren.

But Simon had not yet peaked. In 1981 – in the biggest and best Rip Curl Pro since 1965 – the big guy took his performance in surfing’s best amphitheatre to new heights, in what was possibly the best and gutsiest display of contest surfing ever seen outside Hawaii.

If the Rip Curl Pro has not turned it on in such stature in the years since 1981, there have been many memorable displays, both at Rincon and the Bowl.

During the late ’70s and into the early ’80s, the Rincon finals in the smaller years turned into beer-swilling parties on the rocks for supporters of both finalists – noisy, good-spirited affairs which underlined the different atmosphere that the Rip Curl Pro has managed to hold onto through the years. And if the crowd on the rocks has grown bigger and noisier over the years, so too has the audience on the hill. More than 20,000 people watched the memorable 1987 final when 17-year-old Nicky Wood showed judgement and skill beyond his years to defend fellow rookie Richard Marsh in a balls-and-all final.

That year also saw the emergence of Damien Hardman, who came out of the trials with both guns blazing. The following year Damien blitzed the Bowl with his backhand attack to take out his first Rip Curl Pro.

In 1993 surfing history was made again when the Rip Curl Pro went on The Search and was car-lifted down the coast to Johanna, some two hours away, where Damien won again. Fortunately the law of averages dictates that this will not have to happen too often in our lifetime. But the fact that the contest was moved at all indicates why the Rip Curl Pro is so special, upholding the true spirit of surfing above all else.

FOOTNOTE: In 1997 the Rip Curl Pro celebrated its 25th anniversary and was blessed with the best surf since 1981 and the biggest crowds since 1987. Coincidently, the Victorian Government announced that the Rip Curl Pro “officially” ranks as one of the state’s six “Hallmark International Sporting Events” – alongside the Formula One and Motorcycling Grand Prix, the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Football League Grand Final and the Australian Tennis Open. It’s come a long way since ’73.

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