After all the buildup and anticipation for the World Title battle ahead, Jeep Leader John John Florence was hoping to shake his first round jitters early. The best way to do that, most competitors will tell you, is to nab as many waves as possible...and that's exactly what Florence did during his opening round heat at the Billabong Pipe Masters.
"I feel like a little kid again doing this event, just getting to surf Pipe with no one out," said Florence. "I was just getting so many waves like, ‘This one might barrel!' I like it when it's like this, it changes it up, a peak here and peak there, you can kind of sneak underneath ones."
The fact that two of Florence's three World Title rivals at this event suffered Round One setbacks helped ease him a bit, too. While Jordy Smith turned in the highest scoring heat of the day, Julian Wilson and Gabriel Medina will face early elimination in Round Two as both will be facing off with highly charged wildcards.
Wilson was the first of the four contenders to surf on Monday, and he looked firmly in command through the early going. But midway through the match he inexplicably took off in front of Stu Kennedy while Kennedy was holding priority. It proved a costly error, as the judges had no choice but to give him an interference call, which removed one of Wilson's two scoring waves from the final tally. That cost him the win. Conner Coffin, on the other hand, was the big beneficiary. The Californian is scratching to stay in the Top 22 to stay on the Championship Tour in 2018, and needs a decent result here at Pipeline to insure his spot.
Smith was up in the very next heat. The South African has never made it past the Quarterfinals at Pipe, but you wouldn't guessed that on Monday. He was in rhythm from the start, and the big man found sections tall and hollow enough to suit his needs. His 16.57 was the highest heat score of the day. Smith seems to be relishing his role as a long shot, knowing full well he needs Medina and Florence to lose early. "If they wobble, then I'll put my head down and give it a go," he said.
Medina's Round One match was the best-fought battle of the day. He was up against wildcard Benji Brand, who seems determined to make an impact, and veteran Miguel Pupo, a new father who's trying desperately to hold onto his CT job. Brand and Pupo got going quickly, while Medina looked a bit lost. He failed to take advantage of his shot at priority, and by the time he got it back, it was nearly too late. Pupo took the win with the highest scoring heat of the day, a 9.97. Gabe eventually fired back with an 8.5 of his own, but his only backup was a 3, and the World No. 2 finished in third place.
Medina will now face the dangerous Dusty Payne when Round Two gets underway. A loss will cost him any chance at a Title. Wilson is facing the same fate against Benji Brand.
Meanwhile, there were two noteworthy comebacks worth celebrating today. The first was Owen Wright's return to Pipeline. It's the Australian's first time competing here since 2014. While he didn't have the best of heats, it was great to see him out there. The other comeback kid was Kelly Slater, that 45-year-old bald guy with 11 World Titles and 7 Pipe Masters trophies. Slater is still nursing his bad foot, but it didn't look like it today. The greatest surfer of all time advanced directly to Round Three. "It's been kind of nice to have a few months off," Slater said. "But it's nice to get away from something that you love and get back and appreciate it."
Billabong Pipe Masters Round One Results:
Heat 1: Jeremy Flores (FRA) 10.17, Jadson Andre (BRA) 6.33, Matt Wilkinson (AUS) 4.67
Heat 2: Josh Kerr (AUS) 12.17, Kanoa Igarashi (USA) 6.10, Owen Wright (AUS) 3.37
Heat 3: Conner Coffin (USA) 10.56, Julian Wilson (AUS) 6.57, Stuart Kennedy (AUS) 1.50
Heat 4: Jordy Smith (ZAF) 16.57, Bede Durbidge (AUS) 11.43, Ethan Ewing (AUS) 3.00
Heat 5: Miguel Pupo (BRA) 14.83, Benji Brand (HAW) 12.64 Gabriel Medina (BRA) 12.43
Heat 6: John John Florence (HAW) 13.50, Dusty Payne (HAW) 6.83, Wiggolly Dantas (BRA) 5.63
Heat 7: Caio Ibelli (BRA) 12.83, Adriano de Souza (BRA) 11.27, Jack Freestone (AUS) 7.04
Heat 8: Kelly Slater (USA) 12.47, Joan Duru (FRA) 11.90, Kolohe Andino (USA) 7.60
Heat 9: Ezekiel Lau (HAW) 10.50, Filipe Toledo (BRA) 2.00, Michel Bourez (PYF) 2.00
Billabong Pipe Masters Remaining Round One Match-Ups:
Heat 10: Sebastian Zietz (HAW), Adrian Buchan (AUS), Ian Gouveia (BRA)
Heat 11: Joel Parkinson (AUS), Connor O'Leary (AUS), Leonardo Fioravanti (ITA)
Heat 12: Mick Fanning (AUS), Frederico Morais (PRT), Italo Ferreira (BRA)