Along the shores of Pacific, golf's brightest unwind on surfboards
Surf's Up: In the water with Oakley
Oakley staffers, Dave Ortley and Gregg Hemphill, surf the Southern California beach known as Trestles.
CARLSBAD, Calif. - Sunrise is still 50 minutes away when Dave Ortley pulls off of Interstate 5 North onto Cristianitos Road and parks his VW Jetta TDI SportWagen along the side of the road. The clock on the dashboard reads 6:04. In a few hours, he will be at Oakley’s offices in Foothill Ranch, where he runs the company’s golf footwear and accessories divisions.
Several mornings each week, he arrives here before daylight to surf the famous Southern California beach known as Trestles, the northernmost break in San Diego County.
“It’s 40 degrees,” Ortley says, pointing to the dashboard.
A cold snap has descended on Southern California, but foul weather has never discouraged Ortley, who describes himself as “a scratch surfer and a 6 on the golf course.” Growing up in Bay Head, N.J., Ortley sometimes would slather his face in Vaseline and wear a 5 mm wetsuit so he could surf the cold Atlantic. When a hurricane was approaching, Ortley and his surf buddies would drive to Florida, then chase the storm back up the coast, the offshore winds creating the glassy water and big barrels that surfers crave.
“There’s Hempy,” he says.
Gregg Hemphill, who runs Oakley’s surf division, pulls in behind Ortley’s car, already wearing his wetsuit. Ortley wraps a towel around his waist and pulls on the bottom of his wetsuit, which still is damp from the previous day. “Extremely unpleasant,” he says. He unleashes his 5-foot-10-inch board with four fins – simply known as a 5-10 quad to surfers – and they begin a brisk, 15-minute walk down a path along I-5 South, then turn west toward the beach, eventually crossing under the commuter-rail track that lines the back side of the beach.
“That’s kind of mushy,” Ortley says, assessing the waves.
Hemphill, a native who has been surfing local beaches since childhood, charges into the surf. Ortley follows, and soon catches a good right – literally, a wave that breaks to the right – darting up and down the face. Later, he catches a couple of long lefts.
By 7:45, both men are out of the water and headed back to their cars to finish their commutes.
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If Scotland is the home of golf, Southern California is the nerve center of the modern golf industry. TaylorMade, Callaway and Cobra Puma are headquartered in Carlsbad, 35 miles north of San Diego, and Titleist’s club division is based in Oceanside, a few miles north. Cleveland Golf is 60 miles up the coast in Huntington Beach, due west of Oakley’s offices. Components companies such as Mitsubishi Rayon, Fujikura and Lamkin dot the local map.
Similarly, while surfing’s origins can be traced to Hawaii, California is where the action is these days. Of the roughly 2 million U.S. surfers, some 750,000 of them are in California, according to The Encyclopedia of Surfing. Many of the surf industry’s hardgoods and apparel companies are headquartered in Southern California, and surf shops line the streets in coastal towns such as Encinitas and Solana Beach, just south of Carlsbad.
Ortley and Hemphill are hardly unique. On any day of the year, you’ll find golf-industry employees – everyone from entry-level staffers to senior executives – surfing at local beaches such as Ponto, Swami’s or Cardiff Reef.
“If you’re going to be out here and live the SoCal lifestyle, it’s just right there for you,” said Titleist vice president Chris McGinley, a Pittsburgh native who started surfing shortly after moving to California 18 years ago.
McGinley fell hard for surfing. “For a while, I was pretty consumed,” he said. “. . . It grabs you and it doesn’t let go.”
Almost every morning, Geoff Cunningham, co-founder of Linksoul, John Ashworth’s latest apparel venture, pulls himself away from breakfast with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, saying, “Daddy’s going to work.” Then he grabs his board and wetsuit and makes the short drive to the beach, where he’ll spend an hour surfing before work.
“They say that Old Tom Morris used to jump in the ocean every single day at St. Andrews, which is crazy,” Cunningham said. “But it’s so therapeutic. It’s Prozac, basically. It makes your whole day go better.”
That theme – the mental and emotional benefits of surfing – comes up time and again. Upon first seeing Hawaiian surfers in 1779, Lt. James King, part of Capt. James Cook’s crew, wrote, “They seem to feel a
great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives.”
These days, Hemphill noted, the ocean provides a rare opportunity to disconnect from a 24-7 world.
“Surfing – I don’t want to get too mushy about this – is peace,” said Chad Embrey of Fujikura. “The tranquility of getting out on the golf course early when the dew is on the ground is a little like being on the glassy water early in the morning.”
Surf's up: In the water with TaylorMade
TaylorMade employees from various departments spend mornings before work and occasionally lunchbreak surfing.
A couple of times each week, you usually can find a lunchtime crew from TaylorMade at Turnarounds, a Carlsbad beach seven minutes down Palomar Airport Road from headquarters.
About 11:30 one recent morning, Scott Mayers, a product marketing coordinator at TaylorMade, took a quick look at the ocean and liked what he saw. “There’s definitely going to be some fun waves,” he said. Having surfed since age 6, Mayers understands the water’s movements, and he could detect a strong-enough groundswell to ensure some quality, well-defined surf.
That was welcome news. Two days earlier, Mayers and five TaylorMade colleagues had braved frigid conditions on a Saturday morning at
Ponto, just to the south, only to be stymied by closeouts – waves with no surfable shoulders. This lunchtime surf offered good conditions: 59 degrees and a light offshore wind.
Mayers greeted five colleagues who had pulled into the dirt parking area along Carlsbad Boulevard. They changed into their wetsuits, grabbed their boards and zig-zagged down a steep cliff to the beach. Some colleagues visit the gym or practice range at lunch; this group surfs. They’ll typically get 30 minutes on the water, maybe 45, before returning to work – just long enough, they hope, to get that magical sensation.
“Not a lot compares to being on the face of the wave, out in front. It gets really quiet, it’s fast, it’s that sensation of gliding on water,” said Josh Dipert, a TaylorMade product development manager who grew up snowboarding in Alberta. “It feels longer than it is, even though the rides are pretty short.”
Surf's Up! Golf's brightest hit the waves
On this day, they all catch waves, though it’s a particularly good session for Maresala Milo, a TaylorMade CAD technician who was riding a 9-0 board, longer than those used by his colleagues.
“He has to take three paddles and he’s on the wave,” Mayers said as he pulled on his work shoes and prepared to return to the office. “We’re paddling as hard as we can, kicking our feet, and he just goes right past us. That’s the advantage of a longboard.”
It was Milo who got Carl Pettersen, Lamkin’s product development director, hooked on surfing when both were working at a medical-devices company in Carlsbad 13 years ago. Pettersen recalled that he spent at least three days each week on the water for three months before he finally caught the face of a wave.
“That was 13 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
Every Sunday at 8 a.m. you can find Pettersen riding the beach break at 18th Street in Del Mar. The waves are more dependable three blocks away, at the reef break on 15th, but Pettersen has no interest in fighting other surfers for waves. He’s looking for a relaxing, no-fuss session.
“When I go out on the weekends, it’s rare if dolphins don’t swim past me, within 5 or 10 feet,” he said. “You look at that and realize you’re having a special experience that most of the people in the world will never get to enjoy.”
Surf's Up: In the water with Lamkin's Carl Pettersen
Carl Pettersen of Lamkin Grips spends Sunday's surfing in Del Mar with his family.
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At first blush, surfing and golf might not seem to have much in common.
Golf stresses conformity: Obey the (capital-R) Rules of Golf; play only U.S. Golf Association-approved equipment; follow golf etiquette; wear proper attire. Or else!
Surfing always has been infused with a counterculture element, which Ortley believes “is one of its greatest strengths.” There is some etiquette in the “lineup” – the area just beyond the break where surfers wait for waves. But that’s about it. There are no rules on where or when you can surf, what equipment you can use or what you must wear, and each wave is a chance to express your individual style.
“It keeps you thinking young and free and out of the box,” Ortley said.
Cunningham sees that dichotomy between the sports manifested at the retail level.
“If you walk into a surf shop, you’re just inspired by everything,” he said. “It just feels cool. You’re like, I want to be a part of whatever’s going on in here. It’s so artful. You go into a golf shop, and it’s like being in an old lodge. It’s really stodgy, like being in grandpa’s house.”
Step back for a moment, however, and similarities between the two sports emerge.
Both are lifelong sports that require similar physical skills, including balance and a strong core. Several top pro surfers – most notably celebrity-circuit regular Kelly Slater – are avid golfers. Each sport is played in ever-changing conditions. Just as golfers make pilgrimages to Scotland and Ireland, surfers chase famous waves from Central America to Australia to Hawaii, still mecca to the surfing faithful. And both sports cast a similar spell. Cunningham recalled Ben Hogan saying that he might hit only two shots precisely as he had hoped during each round. Surfing also is about managing the misses.
“You can have the worst day ever, where you miss shots all day in golf, or you miss waves and fall hard,” said Michelle Penney, a CAD engineer at TaylorMade. “And then you will get that one perfect shot or that one perfect wave that makes you say, ‘Oh, hell yeah, I’m definitely going back tomorrow.’ ”
If you think golfers are fussy about their equipment, spend a little time with surfers. Custom surfboards are built by skilled shapers through a process that bears some resemblance to custom club-fitting. This can be costly. Hanging in McGinley’s living room is an agave wood board shaped by Rusty Preisendorfer. “He’s like a Scotty Cameron type,” said McGinley, who estimated the value of the board, which he calls “a piece of art,” at $10,000.
As McGinley’s passion for his “hanger” suggests, something deeper is at work here. Like golf, surfing defines a participant’s identity. Both sports, said Ortley, are “all-encompassing. It’s not just like you go play and you’re done.
It’s part of who you are: You’re a golfer the same way you’re a surfer.”
Cunningham talks about surfing the way Ashworth – his uncle, also a surfer – always has talked about golf. They’re looking for something uplifting, something soulful.
Cunningham often surfs a single-fin board, which is akin to playing – as, in fact, he does – persimmon woods. “I’m not really a purist; I just like feeling it more,” he said. He talked, as many do, about the connection to nature and the similarities between the perfect golf shot and a great surf ride. “It’s all feeling and trust,” he said. “When you get that feeling, we need it again and again.”
Then he paused to ponder those words.
“You sit out on the water for an hour,” Cunningham said, “and you’re really only looking for three seconds of bliss.”