Ross Williams spent 10 years as a World Championship Tour (WCT) competitor. He is a current ASP analyst and contributes a Start/Sit Fantasy surfing column for each event on the elite Tour. Pick your lineup for the upcoming Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons at fantasy.aspworldtour.com.
Possibly more than any other event on the schedule, Pipe has the largest range in characteristics for surf. Think about it: It can be 4-foot Backdoor, where turns actually come into play. It could be 12-to-15 feet and outright scary. It could be only rights or only lefts. It could be big and choppy or small and clean. Sometimes there's a bunch of sand that makes it close out quickly or produce backwash. And sometimes it's like it was last year, perfect 8-to-10-foot lefts and rights with no wind!
My point? Make sure you stare at the forecast to pick your team before the event starts. If Surfline is showing a 10-to-12-foot West swell, pick Kelly Slater (USA) for Tier A, C.J. Hobgood (USA) for Tier B and Jeremy Flores (FRA) for Tier C. A 4-foot North swell, pick Jordy Smith (ZAF), Julian Wilson (AUS) and Adam Melling (AUS). You get the drift.
Unfortunately, I need to give you my picks a week in advance so I won't have the luxury of a clear forecast. These picks are based on typical conditions: 6-to-8-foot lefts with the odd right at Backdoor. It's the last event so let's make this one count. Last chance to hedge your bets, laugh at your friend's loss and show that you know everything there is to know about Tour surfing! Good luck.
Kelly Slater (USA)
If you're worried about picking Kelly due to his injury here's a small scoop: He's told me that he's turned a corner and the foot is feeling much better. With the time off and his full focus on getting healthy, Kelly is "psyching." I really don't need to tell you why you should pick him. I know John John Florence (HAW) is right there with him skill-wise, but no one can argue that Kelly's experience and will to win at Pipe is second to none.
There are only a few people in the world who can match Slater blow-for-blow. His backhand tube-riding and eagerness to get under the heaviest waves at Pipe are legendary. With his unwavering competitiveness and his superhuman-like wave judgment, I could see Kelly not only winning a Pipe Masters title this year, but again when he's 50! Kelly has made some serious competitive blunders this year, which is why he will want to finish off with style at his favorite event. Start 'em.
Nat Young (USA)
Tier B has an interesting mix of choices. C.J. Hobgood (USA), Freddy Patacchia (HAW), Owen Wright (AUS) and Sebastian Zietz (HAW), just to name a few, will be smart picks as well. It's a good idea to look at their Round 1 matchups to see how tough of a heat they have to help you make your decision. Nat has proven to many that he has what it takes to find really deep barrels at Pipe on a consistent basis. There are guys who can sort of get the occasional pit out there and then there are guys who really perform in the wave's demanding conditions. Nat not only wants to get under some mutants, he knows how to compete with that edge. Look for him to make up for a relatively lackluster year with a solid result at Pipe.
Dion Atkinson (AUS)
Dion has a really good chance at taking Miguel Pupo (BRA) and Bede Durbidge (AUS) out in Round 1, based on how he's been surfing. Brett Simpson (USA) is another solid choice in this tier, as he could upset Patacchia and Kolohe Andino (USA) pretty easily. Obviously, Freddy, Miguel, Kolohe and Bede are proven warriors and will make it tough, but if you can see an edge for the underdog there's usually a solid reason behind it.
Dion made a name for himself after his gutsy performance in Tahiti. Coming from South Oz, he's comfortable putting himself under the ledge, which is key in this event. Dion hasn't put in a ton of hours at Pipe, which oddly could help him: He will be so stoked to surf without the notorious crowd that Pipe is known for. This freedom will give him a sense of urgency to simply get pitted, which in turn should help him get a solid result. Start 'em.
Jordy Smith (ZAF)
Wow. As of December 1, ZERO percent of you have Jordy on your team! Jordy can get it done at Pipe, especially if Backdoor produces some nugs. But I must say, I'm with you on this one. If you look at your choices in Tier A, Jordy seemingly has the most to prove -- or at least has the most room for improvement -- at Pipe.
If you put Jordy in a heat with Kelly and John John at Bells Beach or Lower Trestles you would say that Jordy is going to be right there with an equal chance to win. Put those same names in a heat at heavy Pipe or Tahiti and it's a different story. Jordy is an amazing talent and a super skilled tube-rider. I think if he spent time in Hawaii after the year finishes to work on his wave judgment and tenacity for the pit, he would close that gap and make his chances at a World Title that much more realistic. For now, sit 'em.
Julian Wilson (AUS)
Tier B is really tricky. No real favorites and definitely no real weak players. Julian is an amazing surfer who, in my opinion, should be in the Top 5 no problem. But, not unlike Smith, he could close the gap between himself and guys like Kelly and John John if he improves at places like Pipe and Tahiti.
Julian has a crazy capacity when it comes to his maneuvers and skill level in high-performance surf. If he could somehow apply that level and commitment to heavy surf, he will no doubt be in that Top 5 for many years. I'd love to see guys like Julian and Jordy order some really big boards and stay in Hawaii for a while to get used to surfing in the big stuff. It would help kickstart a natural reaction to perform with a comfort level seen in some of the best guys at Pipe. Sit 'em.
Raoni Monteiro (BRA)
Raoni is well-liked on Tour for good reason. He doesn't shy away from a big section, which sort of sums up his approach to life. Come time to put his jersey on at Pipe, I don't doubt he will swing on some heavy ones and make his friends and fans proud once again. But if you look at his Round 1 heat, topping C.J. and John John will be a mammoth task. This may send him clawing his way out of a tough second round, which may be his last showing on his WCT journey. We will have to wait and see -- Raoni is capable of some big upsets -- but if you're the betting type you're better off putting your dough elsewhere. Sit 'em.
Jeremy Flores (FRA)
Sure, Jeremy is rated 33rd on the WCT, but the Frenchman has momentum heading into Pipe. It's possible that this year -- the worst competitive season of his career -- was essential for Flores' growth, not only as an athlete but also as a person. It's extremely difficult to find a balance between being humble and honest with the aggression that is needed to be in a sport like competitive surfing. Many think Jeremy is showing signs of owning that balance, which can only help him moving forward. Technically, the kid is solid in hollow waves and is a proven beast at places like Pipe and Tahiti. Look for him to take scalps (with a smile) at Pipe this year. Start 'em.
Williams provides up-to-date information for ASP Fantasy each morning at 7:30 a.m. local time on the Dawn Patrol Morning Show. Set your Fantasy surfing picks and watch the action unfold LIVE daily on this site. The event window for the Billabong Pipe Masters is December 8-20, 2014.
Follow Ross Williams on Twitter (@rosswilliamshi) and Instagram (@rosswilliamshawaii).