As we approach the midway point in the 2017 men's Championship Tour, with next month's Corona Open J-Bay serving as the season's hump event, it's an appropriate moment to reflect on the breathless start to year filled with promise. Snapper seems like last week... but also like an age ago. And that's the thing about this season, it doesn't want to settle politely into an orderly narrative, much less play out as some kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.
Reigning World Champion John Florence threatened to run away with it all in the land Down Under, but since leaving Australian shores, a pair of successive early exits have kept the race wide open. Meanwhile, at the other end, just when it looked like the rookies for the most part were being used as cannon fodder, Fiji saw an audacious rookie breakout of which Andy Dufresne would have been proud. So we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches in terms of story lines, simmering sub-plots, with all sorts of blindside threats, dark horses, old familiars, emotional comebacks… and of course the perennial Slater conundrum.
Let's consider the four principle findings of the season so far, then.
Five different events, five different winners
"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative," observed Oscar Wilde, who would presumably be savoring the relative lack thereof in terms of finals day performances by the front-runners. With five events and five different winners, it's been a fiercely fought campaign with bloody new fronts opening up every contest. And not just because of five different victors, but also five distinctly different kinds of victories. From the emotionally charged fairytale of Owen Wright's Gold Coast comeback, to vintage, gritty, no-quarter-given-or-asked De Souza. Peak, freak Florence at meaty Margaret's to Jordy's Rolls Royce-esque ringing of Bells. And then of course, most recently, a willful, wily Wilko return to winning ways in Fiji. Which bring us on nicely to...
Wilko in yellow at J-Bay. Same same but different.
At my high school sports day in 1988 (they're still talking about it hushed tones in the halls) Joanna Stedman was our class's hope in the 800m; needing just a podium finish for us to win the day. Her first 400 was blistering, Michael Johnson-esque. She took the bell to a deafening roar with the biggest lead in the history of two lap races, before, inevitably, the slowing up on on the back straight. Then came the wobble, stumble, stop. Then she keeled over.
While Matt Wilkinson's 2016 season didn't come unstuck quite so spectacularly (I certainly don't recall him fainting), an electric start had him streets ahead, enough to both delay and amplify the eventual horror of being chased down by a baying, snarling pack. And while neither Wilko nor super-coach Glenn Hall gave much away -- in terms of feeling John's hot breath on the nape of their necks last summer -- safe to assume it was probably a wholly unpleasant affair. This year, though, while Wilkinson finds himself in the same No.1 spot come mid-season, it's via an altogether different route. His current status feels much more… sustainable, as if he's built something, as opposed to looking around wondering if momentum might desert him at any moment. There's a certain amount of cold-blooded calculation to Wilko 2017, and with an edge to it, like someone with a score to settle. And if you think both he and Hall won't be have figured out a way to use the experience of last year's derailment to their advantage, you haven't been paying attention. Wilko's a bona fide title title threat.
Parko up, Mick & Kelly down, Gabe lingering
In terms of the exclusive three-member Tour club consisting of former World Champs who were already famous when the Millennium Bug was a thing (kids, look it up), Joel Parkinson had the quieter pre-season. Much was understandably made of Kelly's self-proclaimed last big shot at the trophy, while many relished the prospect of a certain degree of schooling the upstarts to Mick Fanning's last lap. But of the three, it's the 2012 World Champ Parko whose haymaking under sunny skies has been significant enough to see him to World No. 6, poised to attack the Top 5 at the very least. Meanwhile, Kelly and Mick are as yet to uproot trees by their own lofty standards, and find themselves in the unfamiliar surrounds of looking up enviably at the Top 10.
Gabriel Medina -- many a savant's pre-season favorite for the Title -- hasn't looked anywhere near his ferocious best. After serving a certain amount of notice on the Gold Coast, the following four events have been remarkable only for the meager nature of their collective points haul. But given the depth of his almost-peerless, freakish talent, and his distinct aversion to losing, it'd be a brave fan to bet on that losing streak lasting.
The Top 5 is wide open
The Top 5 is a curious thing. Presumably, finishing in the Top 5 is something of a disappointment if you were truly a contender from the start. But if you happen to bum-rush the Top 5 late season, then you end up what if-ing your early season indiscretions. Of the current five, with a mere 600 points separating Wright in 5th from Wilkinson in 1st, the yellow jersey is very much in reach for each of them, suggesting they might each belong of the former group.
Whether those 5 continue to share the spoils, or whether some serious big hitters below come to the party post haste, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, whatever you made of proceedings so far, and whatever you're hoping plays out as we approach the business end, the one thing we can all agree on is that you absolutely can't afford to take your eyes off the 2017 men's Championship Tour.