There's a distinct difference between a training day at the Surf Ranch and actually pulling on the jersey and going for a score - as opening day at the Surf Ranch Pro illustrated.
Yesterday, Kelly Slater noted, "Somebody is going to set that bar at a certain point and everyone after that is going to have to match that. That's where the pressure is going to come in."
Today, that somebody happened to be Slater.
He set said bar first thing in the morning, being in the first group to surf. After categorizing his initial two waves as "subpar," he roared back on his second right, garnering an 8.5 from the judges.
He backed that up with a respectable 6.07 on the left for a combined score of 14.57. Holding onto the top spot in the Qualifying Round for the duration of the first day, Slater has set the pace for the rest of the event and is currently the man to beat.
"Saying to yourself, ‘Okay, I've gotta make this wave,' putting yourself in the head space of competition when you're practicing is really challenging," explained Slater of the transition into the main event.
"We had six waves to practice on the first day, three waves the second, and two waves yesterday, so you know exactly how much time you're going to have during those practice sessions, and if you can get into that head space, you feel like it's the real deal at that time. That's what I've been trying to do," he added.
At the end of the first day of men's competition, there is less than one point separating Slater, who's in first, and Adriano De Souza, who's in eighth - the cutoff spot to make the final.
According to the WSL Stats department, surfers are averaging 18 ridden waves per event in open ocean conditions. Today, everyone got four waves each. They will get two more the next time they surf. There are no warm-up waves, no practice sessions before heats, they have to go from a cold start and get hot quick.
The surfers that were able to lock into the zone appeared to put in the most consistent performances, while others struggled with nerves, mistakes, unforced errors, and a panel of judges that were remarkably stingy with high scores.
Young Brazilian Ian Gouveia, Tomas Hermes and Yago Dora are currently sitting second through fourth, respectively.
Gouveia relied on consistency, earning a pair of seven-point rides, while Dora put together one of the most inspired waves of the day, complete with a couple of airs and a series of dynamic maneuvers on the open face.
But it was Californian Pat Gudauskas the put in the most progressive maneuver of the day. Coming out of a spinning left-hand barrel he launched a tight rodeo flip, stomped the landing, almost dug his nose, then pulled it together to end the wave.
"Stoked to get one in the books. You only get two tries and today was just about feeling good and then bringing it to the end zone on Saturday," said Gudauskas afterwards.
Perhaps a bit surprising, he was only awarded a 6.97 for the efforts, but an underlying theme of the day was trying to figure out exactly what the judges were looking for.
Kauai's Sebastian Zietz figured it out on his 8.67, which was the highest single-wave score of the day. But as noted above, the unforced errors took their toll on him. Struggling on the lefts, he's current sitting in ninth and needs to solid score the next time he surfs.
"One wave on Saturday, that's what it comes down to, no pressure, right?" smirked Zietz, who will have to watch the top half of the draw go at it tomorrow.
Matty Wilkinson was another surfer hampered by unfortunate mistakes. The goofy-footer ripped his lefts, getting a 7.60 on his highest scoring ride, but fell twice on the rights. He's now second to last in the rankings and faces an enormous task of clawing his way back into the contest when he surfs this weekend.
Everyone that surfed today will get one more left and one more right to perform on.
Meanwhile, tomorrow the top seeds get their first crack at it. After watching all of the action, and the judges' reaction, they may now have a clearer picture of what it's going to take to push their scores into the excellent range.
Of course, it all comes down to execution, and that's always easier said than done.
After a fitful morning for the men, the women took over in the afternoon.
Bar none, Coco Ho stole the show. After skipping the practice session it was unclear what she was going to bring to the Surf Ranch, but she quickly put all questions to rest when she teed off on her first left, earning a 6.77.
It would turn out to be the highest scoring left for the women today-and Ho was just getting started. Putting a lifetime of Rocky Point experience to good use, she tore the bag out of her second right. Tallying an 8.17, it was the highest scoring ride for the women today and the only wave that reached into the 8-point range.
"I think for Coco this format is going to suit her so much," said commentator Rosy Hodge during the Post Show. "It's her, and she's on that canvas, and it's her performance,surfing to her potential. There are no other outside factors that can bump her off."
Sage Erickson, who sits in second after today, put in a consistent performance. Unlike Ho, she's been spending a lot of time around the Surf Ranch the last couple of days, watching waves, studying rides and analyzing them with her coach - former CT competitor Tommy Whitaker.
With a 7.40 for her right and a 6.67 for her left, she's the only other female surfer besides Ho to break the 14-point barrier.
Courtney Conlogue's not far behind with a 13.54 combined score. Back from injury, fit and coming off her big U.S. Open win, she's carrying a lot of enthusiasm and energy in her surfing. She's also had the good fortune of having her shaper, Tim Stamps, up at the Surf Ranch earlier this year, which has translated into some really dialed in equipment.
"If you want to have a little fun you have to get a little spicy with your jalapeño," she laughed, referring to the model of the board she's riding, which is aptly called the Jalapeño.
Unfortunately, for wildcard Bethany Hamilton the nuance of the pool proved to be a challenge.
She earned a respectable 5.33 on her first right, but the fan favorite was unable to put a complete ride together on the lefts. Falling on both opportunities, she now finds herself needing a strong 7.67 to get back in this and potentially make the final cut.
That said, the top seeds take the water tomorrow and with Ho already hovering just below the 15-point heat total, the road ahead is only going to get more pressure-packed.