While the 2018 Championship Tour (CT) doesn't start until March 11 with the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, a handful of CT surfers were competing at Sebastian Inlet last week. There, at the Ron Jon Florida Pro pres by Sunshine State Florida Lager, a Qualifying Series (QS) event worth 6,000 points, they were sharpening their competitive games and building their backup plans for requalification. It was a perfect opportunity to take stock of where a handful of the world's best are heading as the new season kicks off. Here's are some of the takeaways.
This Kauaian powerhouse has been pegged as a World Title contender since her rookie year, back in 2015. And for the first two years she gave the top brass on the women's tour a run for their surfing money. But then 2017 happened. Weston-Webb opened her year with a string of ninth-place finishes, and wrapped things up at World No. 10. For some surfers, finishing just above the ranking cutoff line would bring a big sigh of relief. But those surfers are not Weston-Webb, whose self-confidence in surfing is akin to that of the fictional Lady Bird in the canon of awards films. For her, most likely leaving the perfect reef breaks of her home turf in Hawaii for the inconsistent stuff of Sebastian Inlet last week was designed to shake off some vacation cobwebs, as well as to get a head start on a potential 2018 backup plan. Her fifth-place finish did a bit of both, while undoubtedly supplying her with just the right amount of frustration-filled fuel.
This Australian wunderkind's journey has been more typical of early-career CT surfers. She arrived on Tour in 2016 with a four-year plan and, according to Andrew, everything is on track. Unlike some other rookies, Andrew is reticent to announce her intentions of winning a World Title. You can bet she has her sights set on one, but she's taking things one season at a time. So far, Andrew's gone from finishing at World No. 14 in 2016 to World No. 11 at the end of 2017. Still just shy of requalifying through her CT rank, but an impressive year-over-year improvement. Her breakthrough last season came in September, at the Swatch Pro at Trestles, when she finished runner-up -- her best result yet. With a fifth-place finish in Florida, she's on to her next goal: making the top 10.
The oldest woman on the Championship Tour, at age 33, Lima is a survivor. She has qualified for the elite CT an incredible three times, battling a knee injury and financial hurdles all the while. But one thing she didn't suffer from was a loss of faith in herself. Like Keely Andrew, Lima found her footing at Trestles last season, winning the event in commanding fashion. Unfortunately for Lima, despite a strong second half of 2017 she still had to requalify through the QS. This year, she's hoping to remedy that with some momentum. Her fifth-place finish in Florida is a decent start, and should giver her all the comfort she needs to stay loose at Snapper Rocks.
The daughter of former pro and Western Australia icon Dave Macaulay, Bronte has had a rough two years on the CT, slogging through strings of painful, 13th- and 9th-place finishes (which is to say, last, and second-to-last). But starting at the Maui Women's Pro this past December, something may have clicked. At Honolua Bay, Macaulay finished in third place, her best yet in the big leagues. Last week she backed that up with a runner-up finish to local hero Caroline Marks in Florida. Considering Marks' home field advantage, that's quite the coup Macaulay just pulled. Her task now is to take that momentum back to Australia.
For the better part of the past decade -- seven years, to be exact -- Coco Ho has held her own on the elite women's tour. But back in 2014 she started to slip, her year-end rankings dipped below No. 10 on the Championship Tour, and they have yet to bounce back. Like the other women on this list, she has had flashes of brilliance, like her third-place finish Huntington's US Open in August. But she could use a little more fire in the belly to bring it every time. She bombed out early in Florida, which didn't help her cause. So what does Coco want in 2018? We'll all find out when Round One begins in six weeks' time.
Ostensibly, Caroline Marks -- the ingénue who, at 15, is the youngest person ever to qualify for the CT -- has just three things to do this year: Watch, learn, and requalify, any way she can. And in a recent interview, just before she smashed the competition to win the Ron Jon event, she brushed off the idea that she feels nervous about such a big spotlight, at such a young age. Well -- not too nervous, anyway. Yes, there are nerves. But no, nothing can take away the history she's making simply by showing up. If she can keep that confidence close, on a slow-burn all year long, she will be just fine.
The sole New Zealander on either CT, Paige Hareb is a returnee to the bright lights of the Championship Tour -- and therefore, perhaps more motivated than anyone to go big and, most of all, not fall off again. When she made the cut by the skin of her teeth at the final women's QS of 2017, there was no more holding back. "As soon as the heat finished I just bawled my eyes out," she told Stuff.co.nz. "It's been three years of hard work but I've achieved my dream." So far this year, Hareb is off to a solid start. Like some of her peers in this piece, she, too, finished in fifth-place, which sets her up for a potential fall-back for requalification.
That all said, there is a long season ahead on both the CT and the QS. And it's only barely begun.
Catch all Top 16 women of the CT and one wildcard compete at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast live on the WSL, from March 11 - 22.