If a statement was made on the final day of the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, it began during the quarterfinals, on a large left-handed wave on which Rob Machado performed the kind of mastery that has made him a favorite among fans as well as today’s top pros.
It continued through Sunday’s semifinals when the goofy-footer from Cardiff-by-the-Sea disposed of one of his biggest admirers, and concluded in the form of a triumph over Roy Powers and an unprecedented third U.S. Open title before tens of thousands of spectators at Huntington Beach Pier.
Not bad for someone who now considers competitive surfing merely a vehicle for proving that one doesn’t have to be on tour to be regarded as one of the world’s best surfers.
“It’s more about making a statement to myself because that’s the one thing I miss about being on tour,” said Machado, who typically competes in about five contests annually. “These guys are traveling together all the time and they’re always surrounded by a real high level of surfing.
“And when you’re not on tour you just don’t have that level of surfing around you. So it inspires me -- it’s fun to go out there and test myself against these guys, to see how I hold up.”
Machado, 32, was once a top competitor on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals’ World Championship Tour. He was ranked No. 8 in 1993, his first year. He improved to No. 2 in 1995, when his semifinal loss to Kelly Slater at the season-ending Pipeline Masters in Hawaii kept him from winning the world title.
Burnout, marriage and, ultimately, a budding family hampered Machado’s enthusiasm thereafter, and a broken hand suffered in 2001 led to a split with the tour -- after he was denied an injury wildcard for 2002 and told he must work his way back through the World Qualifying Series tour.
Machado instead signed with Hurley and maintained his popularity through photo and video excursions, magazine shoots and public appearances -- plus, the occasional contest.
“The guy is a machine and can get the scores on any wave he goes on,” said Powers, who is ranked No. 41 on the WCT and will benefit from the WQS points he earned by making the U.S. Open finals. “I could have maybe applied a bit more pressure, but I wanted to win honorably and I came really close.”
Sunday was a marathon played out in four- to six-foot windblown waves. Machado won a three-man Round of 12 heat in the morning and was matched in an elimination quarterfinal against Australia’s Josh Kerr. It was close until Machado gouged a six-footer to the pier and brought the crowd to its feet with a tail-slide reverse as he was shooting the pilings.
He earned an 8.67 out of a possible 10 and Kerr was unable to better Machado’s two-wave score of 15.17.
In a semifinal against San Clemente’s Mike Losness, Machado caught only four waves to Losness’ six, but his two top scores of 7.17 and 6.90 enabled him to post a 14.07-13.50 victory.
Losness afterward labeled it an honor to lose to his childhood hero.
Against Hawaii’s Powers, Machado thrilled the crowd with vertical top turns, by throwing water with tail slides and, on one inside section, by negotiating a 360 reverse.
With six minutes left, Powers needed a 6.33 to take the lead but Machado held wave priority and utilized the system to perfection, shadowing his rival and feigning paddling into waves to keep Powers off the good ones.
Time expired and Machado had won a six-star event that will propel him up the WQS rankings and put him position to make a run for next year’s WCT.
Though intrigued, Machado hardly seemed thrilled by the prospect of going on tour again.
“On tour a contest becomes just another contest and you just blow through them like they’re no big deal,” he said. “And now they’re more of a big deal for me.
“Since I don’t surf too many it’s fun to get excited and come to an event like this and feel the nervous energy -- because you’re not doing it week in, week out.”
As far as his rivals are concerned, that’s probably a good thing.