By Will Swanton
GOLD COAST (Reuters) - It is comparable to tennis losing Wimbledon from its schedule. Or the US Masters being stripped of its status as a golf major.
The Association of Surfing Professionals announced on Friday that one of the jewels in its crown, the Billabong Pro Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, will not be part of the world championship race this year.
The contest has been downgraded due to the financial difficulties of the Billabong company. The Australian surf-wear company announced earlier this month it was cutting jobs and shutting shops.
The event will be run as a six-star contest, the level below the main tour.
The loss of a marquee part of the tour increases the likelihood that world champion Kelly Slater will retire from fulltime competition, sooner rather than later. Jeffreys Bay was one of his favorite stops on tour.
In a statement released by the ASP, Billabong said: "The change in event status follows a broader review in which we are seeking to identify cost savings throughout the business. By retaining an event at Jeffreys Bay, it now provides two qualifying events back to back in the South African region.
"The move to an ASP six-Star also opens the event up to South Africa's aspiring pro surfers for the first time in 20 years and ensures continuity of the event for the local businesses in Jeffreys Bay."
The scheduling change means the men's world title will be held over 10 contests instead of 11.
"We agreed as a board that whilst very regrettable, the commercial realities are such that a pragmatic approach by ASP at this time seemed sensible," said ASP chairman Richard Grellman.
"Billabong have been long-time supporters of professional surfing and still sponsor three of the 10 world championship tour events and we look forward to our deep relationship with them continuing."
Slater is contesting the season-opening Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast. First-round heats of the men's contest, and the Roxy Pro for women, are scheduled to begin tomorrow.
American Lisa Andersen, the women's world champion from 1994 to 1997, failed to make the main draw after being eliminated in the first round of the trials on Friday. The mother of two was attempting a comeback at the age of 42.
(Editing by Ossian Shine)