HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Brett Simpson stared at the names scattered across the U.S. Open of Surfing bracket, which looked more like a Hall of Fame ballot than the field for the richest event in surfing history. There was Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Andy Irons, Taylor Knox, Mick Fanning, C.J. Hobgood and Sunny Garcia -- winners of 15 combined world championships and the highest career earners in surfing history.
This was supposed to be an event that showcased some of the best surfers ever battling it out for the richest prize ever -- a $100,000 first place check. Instead, it became a coming-out party for Simpson, a 24-year-old local surfer trying to qualify for the World Tour, who became the first Huntington Beach native to ever win the U.S. Open.
There has been competitive surfing contests held at the iconic Huntington Beach Pier for 50 years, dating back to the first U.S. Open in 1959, but never before had Surf City, USA seen so many legends descend on the same beach at the same time. Then again never before had the winner of a surf contest been handed a six-figure first prize check.
Despite a struggling economy, new title sponsor Hurley raised the first-place purse by $80,000 from last year at the behest of Machado, its star endorser and record three-time U.S. Open champion, in order to attract the best surfers in the world.
As Simpson, who has been going to the U.S. Open every year since he was 12, walked around Main Street before the event he couldn't believe the names that were in the competition as he looked at the pictures plastered on storefronts.
"I was kind of pissed at Hurley when they did that," said Simpson, a surfer on the World Qualifying Series (WQS). "Why are they inviting on all these nuts guys out here to compete?"
While Hurley was creating a spectacle for fans and a lucrative payday for the winner, Simpson was actually echoing a sentiment shared by many of his fellow WQS surfers who use the U.S. Open to earn points to try and qualify for the World Tour. By inviting surfers already on the World Tour that don't need WQS points and encouraging them to go hard with a record purse at stake, it makes it difficult for surfers like Simpson to earn points that will one day allow them to tour with the likes of Slater, Machado, Irons and Fanning.
Simpson not only experienced what it was like to surf against his idols growing up but what it feels like to beat them all. He clinched the U.S. Open title, defeating 2007 world champion Fanning the final Sunday afternoon. In front of an estimated crowd of 140,000 lining the beach and the pier, Simpson all-but-clinched the title 10 minutes into the 30-minute heat with his third wave, a 360-degree aerial, which garnered a 9.10 from the judges that put the competition out of reach for his Australian counterpart. Fanning wasn't able to come close to that mark as Simpson was mobbed and carried from the shore to the victory podium on the shoulders of his friends and family after the final buzzer sounded.
"Now, I can't complain," said Simpson with a grin on his face after the final. "It's amazing to get to surf against these guys. Mick's been one of my favorite surfers for 12 years and to end up in a final with him and somehow beat him is sick... I didn't win a cheap U.S. Open."
The heralded next generation of women's surfers once again made their presence felt at the U.S. Open as 16-year-old Santa Ana native Courtney Conlogue beat 15-year-old defending champion Malia Manuel from Hawaii in the women's final. Last year Manuel, at 14, became the youngest U.S. Open champion ever, defeating fellow Hawaiian 17-year-old Coco Ho in the final.
While many of the top male surfers today are in their 30's, the women's field in recent years has been taken over by a wave of teenage surfers that at times surf as progressively and ambitiously as their male counterparts.
"The new generation is really taking off," said Manuel, who competed in the women's final moment after winning the junior pro women's final. "We push each other so much. It's great to see all the girls stepping it up."
Manuel, who nearly became the first surfer ever to win both U.S. Open and junior pro in the same year, seemed to hit a wall midway through the final against Conlogue as her energy and the waves around her seemed to wane. "I was tired after the junior pro final where the waves were big and we had to paddle a lot," said Manuel. "I tried to rest as much as I could [in between] but there's really nothing I could do about it. I wanted to win but being in two finals at my age is still good."
After going back and forth with each girl matching each other wave for wave, Conlogue nailed a 9.0 and pulled away for the victory with a score of 17.17. Earlier in the competition Conlogue recorded a tournament-high 19.63 overall heat score in the quarterfinals, higher than any of the men, including Slater who notched a perfect 10 during one of his heats. Despite the rise in women's surfing, a missing zero in the first place check for the women's U.S. Open champion ($10,000) showed they still have a way to go in changing the perception in and around the surfing community.
"I get it. The guys are guys and the girls are girls," said Conlogue, who used to compete and hold her own against the boys growing up. "I'm happy with what I got but hopefully with the rise of this next generation the prize money will follow us."
While Orange County locals swept the men's and women's finals, a couple of Hawaiians, Kai Barger and Manuel, that will be dominating surfing for years to come swept the junior pro finals.
Manuel, won the junior pro in dramatic fashion when her final wave in the closing minute of the final heat pushed her scores ahead of Sage Erickson. "I'm glad I had the pro junior to fall back on," said Manuel, who earned a total of $4,800 -- $2,500 for the junior pro win and $2,300 for second place in the U.S. Open. "Sage almost had it in the bag and some miraculous wave came and I got to pick it up and got a score."
Barger, 19, defeated Tonino Benson, Dillon Perillo and Nat Young in the men's junior pro, destroying rights and lefts to score 15.50 out of a possible 20. The win was just another chapter of what's been an epic year for Barger who since January has won the ASP World Junior championship, been on the cover of Surfer magazine, won the Oakley Pro Junior title and now adds the U.S. Open Junior Pro crown his ever-growing resume.
"We have the most amazing young surfers in Hawaii," said Barger. "We actually have the best up-coming chick surfers in Hawaii. They're the best. I'm just trying to keep up with the chicks."