Kelly Slater finally got pissed. In the waning moments of his Round 1 heat, with his back against the wall, Slater had to dig deep.
"I didn't think we were going to run today," he admitted afterwards.
With less than three minutes on the clock, all Slater needed was a 5.6 to sneak pass local wildcard, 16-year-old Xavier Huxtable. For most of the heat the GOAT appeared relatively uncompetitive as Filipe Toledo prowled the line-up, dominating the heat with his explosive aerial barrage, turning mushy waves into scores.
"I passed on one because it didn't look big enough and then Filipe [Toledo] got a 7 on it," Slater confessed.
It very much appeared that the 11x World Champ was headed for a repeat performance of what we saw on the Gold Coast. He almost seemed destined for Round 2. But then, in a ragged, mixed-up Winkipop lineup, something in Slater changed.
Taking off on a sectiony, chest-high set wave, he fired off a succession of tack-sharp carves and snaps -- the quintessential Slater program -- as he finessed the close-out section with a tail blow.
There was intention and commitment in every maneuver. The score only came in as a 6-point ride, but it was the best score of the year for Slater. And, most importantly, it was enough to put him in second over Huxtable and advance into Round 3.
"I'm feeling alright," Slater said after his heat, relieved to have dodged another possible Round 2 elimination. "I didn't get down here early to warm-up, which is what I was hoping to do. It kind of went flat last week. So, I haven't been surfing much the last few days."
Depending on what happens throughout the rest of the contest, that 6-point ride could prove to be the turning point for the King. He clearly didn't want to lose to a frothy little grom who came kicking and screaming into this world when the Slater/Andy Irons rivalry was at its zenith.
Winikipop was always going to be a challenge for Slater -- it's a well-suited wave for more progressive surfing. But in the end he lived to fight another day. That should build his confidence and get the competitive juices flowing.
The heat did however showcase the performance gap between 47-year-old Slater and 24-year-old Toledo. Before the start of the Rip Curl Pro, Slater reckoned his situation much like embattled golfer Tiger Woods, who won the Masters in legendary form last weekend.
"You had people saying [Tiger] was done; he can't even chip anymore," Slater said. "People are so quick to sensationalize when someone isn't on their game. But you never know what someone may be going through."
Maybe it was that experience that carried Slater into Round 3.
If it was a golf tournament, Toledo was bombing 320-yard drives right down the center of the fairway, while on that 6-point ride, Slater methodically placed his shots, perfectly sculpting a performance he knew the judges could not deny.
"There's guys that are clearly leading the way when it comes to airs, carves and different aspects of the game, but it matters how you put it all together and in that regard I feel like I can hang," Slater continued. "After the Gold Coast, I feel like I need to get happier, not hungrier. I wasn't very happy on the Gold Coast. I kind of fell into a dark hole. I wasn't surfing with joy. Once you start to get in your head about something it blocks you and it's hard to find your way out of that. But now I'm just appreciating what I have and enjoying that."
The King didn't win the Round 1 heat, but he didn't lose it either ... There has to be some joy in that.
He's starting to find his groove again as he heads into Round 3. Slater's played enough golf in his life to know that if he can just keep the ball out of the rough, he's always a chip and a putt away from something special. He's in the fairway now, let's see what he can do now.