Round 1 of the J-Bay Open started with clean conditions and solid swell in the head-high range as the Top 34 battled for the direct advance to Round 3. (Runners-up in this round head to the sudden-death Round 2).
After missing two consecutive events due to injury Tahitian Michel Bourez returned to competition in aggressive form, sending both Taj Burrow (AUS) and Brett Simpson (USA) to Round 2. Despite injuring his foot before heading to South Africa, Bourez was fired up, and used his powerful rail surfing to win the first heat of the event.
"I've been out for two months and just to be back and win my first heat, that's amazing," said Bourez. "I'm surfing at like 80 percent, but there's a few maneuvers that I can't do properly so I just feel like I need to find a new way to surf that wave. I feel great in the water and I made the heat so that's what matters."
Fiji Pro runner-up Julian Wilson (AUS) appeared to continue his momentum with a Round 1 win. In spite of holding a lead throughout the majority of his heat, fellow Fiji finalist and Stop No. 5 winner Owen Wright fell victim to C.J. Hobgood (USA). Hobgood snatched victory from Wright in the final minute of the heat. It was his first Round 1 win of the season.
"I just want to surf good and it was kind of a slow heat and Owen's been going hard out there," said Hobgood. "Owen's surfing is so smooth. His turns look a lot bigger than mine so I know I have to catch bigger waves than him."
Rhythm became even more of a defining factor as the day progressed, eluding many of the world's best including No. 2 Filipe Toledo (BRA), who lost to wildcard Dane Reynolds (USA). And while veteran rail work from Mick Fanning (AUS) earned one of the highest heat totals of the day, increased onshore wind forced judges to reward progression heading into the back half of the round.
Aerial performances from Josh Kerr (AUS), Kelly Slater (USA) and Kolohe Andino (USA), who sent Jeep Leader Adriano de Souza (BRA) into Round 2, reigned as the day neared completion. Slater dominated goofyfooters Matt Wilkinson (AUS) and Glenn Hall (IRL) to earn 17.00, the highest heat total of the day.
"I feel really good and I took a lot of time off this week," said Slater. "I didn't chase that last swell and I took some time for myself. I also felt really good in my freesurf yesterday. I felt calm and I watched it a couple hours beforehand to see where to sit and which waves to catch and who's doing what. I don't feel like anyone's been able to stand out today. I've got to do something, you know? Got to keep these guys on their toes while I'm here."
Surfers struggled to find a clean face in the final heats of the day as conditions continued to deteriorate. Local favorite Jordy Smith (ZAF) could not find his groove and will face possible elimination in Round 2. Meanwhile reigning World Champion Gabriel Medina (BRA) and former World Champion Joel Parkinson (AUS) failed to get past rookie Keanu Asing (HAW), who's fierce performance earned him the direct advance to Round 3.