This was a much braver move than it might sound today. 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.
The first Rip Curl Pro in 1973 was a relatively small affair, with surfers competing for cash prizes that amounted to little more than beer money. 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 higher 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 marks the true beginning of surfing’s conversion to professionalism.
Since its inception in the early 1960s, the Bells meet had been frequently blessed with big, powerful waves that 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 off their guns and perform in the only Australian contest that regularly offered waves that 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.
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. Along with the clean autumn swells, the Easter weekend seemed to attract 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 veterans like Nat Young, Peter Drouyn and Rod Brooks often saved their best for the Rip Curl Pro.
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 Tom 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.
Over the years, the local crowd on the rocks has grown bigger and noisier, and so too has the audience on the hill. More than 20,000 people watched the memorable 1987 Rip Curl Pro final when 16-year-old Nicky Wood showed judgment 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 moved entirely 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 to ensure the world’s best surfers were competing in the best possible waves indicates why the Rip Curl Pro is so special – upholding the true spirit of surfing above all else.
Today, the Rip Curl Pro remains one of the key contests on the ASP World Championship Tour and offers a prize many value equal in prestige to the World Title trophy. Thanks to a live online webcast and TV network partners around the world, the event is watched by millions of surfing fans every year.