Did Surfing Become The New Golf?

by Jack Truesdale February 26, 2022 7 min read

It wouldn’t be Mark Goldberg’s first rodeo at Surf Ranch.

It would, at least, be his second, and he was feeling generous. Or it was just circumstance that led the San Francisco–based venture capitalist to ask Twitter last November, “What founders are also surfers?” His firm, Index Ventures, was planning an event at Surf Ranch in 2022 and had “a few slots left.” To demonstrate proximity to the G.O.A.T., Goldberg attached a selfie with a wetsuit-clad, five-o-clock-shadowed Kelly Slater behind him on a jet ski from “the last go around,” he wrote.

The final frontier. Photo: Matt Mahoney

To taste Slater’s wave — reputed to cost 11 dollars per second, or up to 70,000 dollars a day — on someone else’s dime would indeed be priceless for the chosen few. To hobnob with investors could lead to greater payoffs, to fund their own days at Surf Ranch. Naturally, a shameless Twitter contest of whose wave was bigger, whose NFT business niftier, ensued between eager lads vying for a spot.

“I’m a Founder/CTO of a sick tech company,” one user wrote, adding a shot of himself popping up on a head-high wave. Another man — “Founder pioneering utility NFTs” — added a shot of himself doubled over, dropping into double-overhead Uluwatu. (Did his bid work out? “Nothing came out of it, guess the invites were all given out,” he wrote in an email.)

One user roped in Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the encrypted messaging app Signal: “Always wanted to see that place!” Marlinspike wrote, nobly attaching no photo. A handful of users replied with hand emojis, raised, waving. One fellow — “definitely a passionate surfer and founder” — touted his repertoire of Skeleton Bay, J-Bay, Hossegor, and Uluwatu. “The ranch is still on the bucket list though,” he wrote.

“Surfing is the new golf,” wrote an astute yet nevertheless hungry Twitterer. “How does one earn a spot?” he asked, attaching a photo of himself crouching under a throwing lip.

It’s likely that Kelly would outshine most of these folks on the golf course, too.

Followers of Slater’s wave might see an early prophecy approaching fulfillment.As Lewis Samuels wrote for Esquire in 2018, Slater’s company was looking into a “private-membership model similar to that of a luxury golf community in which an artificial wave serves as the centerpiece of a new development.”

In the next two years, four wave pools are coming to the golfing mecca of Palm Springs: Thermal Beach Club, DSRT Surf, Palm Springs Surf Club, and Coral Mountain, which will feature Kelly Slater Wave Company technology.

No longer just a wave pool, Coral Mountain will come sandwiched between a hotel, spa, and single-family homes starting at two million dollars. “Coral Mountain will be a private residential community just like a private golf community. Access is through owning a home, being a guest of a homeowner or staying at the hotel,” Garrett Simon, who is developing the project as a partner at Meriwether Companies, told me. A band of coral-look-alike tufa (calcium carbonate) drawn from the surrounding area, where it grew when it was beneath prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, will line the basin alongside the wave, Simon said. “You get to look at it, you don’t have to feel it,” he added.

Less than three hours from both LA and San Diego, in case you were wondering. Photo: Google Earth

The wave’s arrival date remains uncertain while the developers push the project through the public review process towards approval from the city of La Quinta. (The land had previously been approved for a golf course, according to Simon.) While the cost of surfing the wave remains undetermined, Simon said, “Our pricing will be more like if you’re a member of a golf club.”

Another Palm Springs wave pool sheds light on the pricing and politics to come. Recently approved, Thermal Beach Club — “the most authentic surfing experience outside the ocean” — offers two membership levels: “Residence Club,” which starts at $175,000, and “Full Ownership,” which starts at $1 million, according to its website. The project set off some controversy, the local Desert Sun reported, with critics upset that an expensive, exclusive club will be developed in a low-income area where mostly Latino farmworkers live, and where some locals lack water and sewage lines. The county approved Thermal Beach Club, however, after the developers promised to contribute land or money to developing affordable housing, and by committing $750,000 to connect water to future affordable housing developments. The developers also claimed that the project would create 200 to 400 permanent jobs, after employing 1,000 to 2,000 people for the construction.

“Everything people worry about, it’s not there,” the Palm Springs Surf Club’s creative director, James Willis, told the Hollywood Reporter, explaining the absence of sharks, reef, tides, and even other surfers dropping in on you. (Not to mention you dropping in on anyone.)

This proof-of-concept prototype at the Palm Springs Surf Club has since been drained, demo’d and is going full-scale.

Cheyne Magnusson, PSSC’s chief hydro officer and a Maui-raised surfer living in Palm Springs, estimated that the wave pool will open before 2022’s end. Built on an existing water park, the wave won’t come with a ritzy housing development, but it’s keeping the lazy river and water slides. “Here’s the question,” the landlocked Magnusson told me. “I’m a dad, my wife doesn’t surf, my kids are too young to surf, but I need to surf. How can I plan a surf trip?” His answer: A place with just enough aquatic amenities for the family and a good wave for dad to rip.

The wave itself will be an A-frame, eight or nine seconds long on either side. “If I start wedging this thing up against the wall and I can get a roll-in and backdoor the A-frame section, you’re probably talking more 12- to 14-second rides,” Magnusson said. Although shorter than Slater’s wave, PSSC will be able to summon one wave every 10 seconds, allowing a surfer to get more reps in. Magnusson anticipates that the PSSC wave will cost less than Surf Ranch, though he couldn’t disclose the pricing. With bookings by the hour and the day, he said, the wave will be accessible to both “the guy showing up in a private jet” and “the core surfer.”

In short, the stakes of surfing PSSC’s wave might feel lower. At a pricier wave pool, “I would see a $400 wave rolling at me, and I would think, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’” Magnusson said. “And so how are you going to surf that wave? Probably conservatively.”

Kai Barger, hole in one. Photo: KC/WSL

As a surfer and a golfer, Kai Barger doesn’t see too much conflict between the two sports. Though you may have seen videos of him surfing Jaws, he also golfs every week. And as a contender on the reality TV show “The Ultimate Surfer,” he lived at Surf Ranch for six weeks last summer. “We’d get a few waves a day, then if you fucked them up that was all you got. You don’t get to, like, redo it,” Barger told me.

“It’s so different from the ocean. The aspect of not being able to catch another wave really messes with your head, and then you fuck it up and you gotta wait till tomorrow,” he said. “And then they give you a time. They’re like, ‘Yeah, 3:45, you’re gonna get your left.”

Since this correspondent neither vied for an invitation nor was extended one, it’s worth imagining how a networking event at Surf Ranch might look: Entrepreneurial shoulder-rubbing among the businesspeople on shore, observing the sole surfer riding, performing for the very fellows who might fund their next venture. In the water, there is no jockeying for position, no snaking, and no consequent conflicts, no resulting reconciliations.

“You’re taking turns,” Matt Warshaw, the author of “The History of Surfing” who himself got tubed at the Ranch, told me. “Out of all the things I hate: the idea that you’ve taken away all the chess play. All the underhanded shit we all do to each other was part of the fun.”

“That’s just those guys spending a lot of money and taking turns, riding waves, and toasting each other,” Warshaw said. “You get to watch your friends tee off, then it’s your turn to tee off.”

The beginnings. Photo: Wikipedia

Golf was born in Scotland as a sort of everyman’s game, even a bit counter-cultural. Scottish parliament in 1457 deemed the game “unprofitable” and distracting from compulsory military archery training, and so banned “ye golf.” Calvinist missionaries arriving in Hawaii in the 19th century discouraged surfing for its “barbarism,” considering it unproductive. The leader of those first missionaries, Hiram Bingham, wrote that, “The decline or discontinuance of the use of the surf-board, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase of modesty, industry or religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it.” Only as both sports caught on with the elite, and showed their profitability, did they find support.

In the beginning, when surfing was something more of a meritocracy, “the money counted for so little,” Warshaw said. “There were so many incredible surfers who were dirt poor.” Now, anyone wealthy enough can buy a ticket into a tube, or the training time to get there. “The Surf Ranch thing just fucked that over completely.”

Fuck that over it may. But, at least for Magnusson, it presents both an opportunity and a responsibility. “If the fear is these guys are going to come in and they’re big money guys and they’re gonna push all the little guys out and they’re going to forget about what surfing is really about,” he said, “it’s up to us to be good stewards of the sport and the lifestyle and the culture and help to communicate that to anyone coming into this place.” As long as core surfers are helping to run the show, Magnusson sees a chance to push the popularization of surfing in “the right direction.”

No surfing/golfing article would be complete without this video — and be sure to stick around for Occy’s excuse at the end.

Given the perfection of Slater’s designer wave, some surfers are not necessarily averse to the wave pools of the future.

“I would love to go back,” Barger said. “If Kelly ever ends up reading this: Hi, Kelly, I want to go golfing and go back to the Ranch with you. I want in on the country club. I’m trying to buy some NFTs and crypto so I can join the club one day.”

Goldberg declined to comment for this story, and the WSL did not return a request for comment.

The post Venture Capitalists, Developers, Networking Events — Increasingly, Wave Pools Are Where Big Business Happens appeared first on Stab Mag.