Gentle-natured goofyfoot surfer from Pacific Palisades, California; winner of the 1970 World Surfing Championships, at age 18, just months before dropping off the surf scene entirely. Aurness was born (1952) in Santa Monica, California, the son of Hollywood actor James Arness, who played Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, CBS-TV's long-running western drama series. ("Aurness" is the original family name; James used the shortened version once he began acting.) James began surfing after World War II, had his son on a board at age eight, and provided a near-fantasy surf environment, regularly filming Rolf with a Super-8 camera for post-surf analysis, taking the family to Hawaii three times a year, and piloting his Cessna for weekend surf getaways to Baja, Mexico.
Aurness was the top-rated boys' division surfer in California in 1967; the following year, at 16, he competed in the World Championships in Puerto Rico; in 1969 he won three consecutive events on the Western Surfing Association's elite AAAA circuit on his way to becoming the nation's top-ranked surfer for the year. By age 17, Aurness had developed a smooth but aggressive surfing style. "He rode the back half of his board," 1969 Makaha International winner Paul Strauch remembered, "and was constantly turning, climbing and dropping, cutting back and reversing direction."
Aurness was the first overseas competitor to arrive in Victoria, Australia, for the 1970 World Championships. Nearly all of the heavily favored Australian surfers, including Wayne Lynch and 1966 world champion Nat Young, were using experimental sub-six-foot boards. Aurness, riding a streamlined 6' 10", stood out immediately as the contest's most polished and precise surfer, and in the six-man final, held in beautiful overhead waves at a rural surf break called Johanna, he won easily. "Rolf was going twice as fast as we were," finalist Nat Young recalled, "and covering twice the ground."
The soft-spoken, curly-haired Aurness was interviewed by the surf press after the contest, appeared in a few surfboard and wetsuit ads, and was a guest on the Merv Griffin Show. But he never again competed, and soon removed himself completely from the spotlight. "I didn't know how to be famous," he later said. "I think growing up just became a personal battle."
As detailed in a lengthy Surfer's Journal profile in 2001, Aurness's adult life has been full of hardship and tragedy. His sister overdosed and died in 1975, his mother drank herself to death a few months later, and Aurness's first wife died of cancer in 1978. Aurness himself had drug problems, spent time in a psychiatric ward in 1972, was in drug rehab in 1976, entered and dropped out of college, and spent the early and mid-'80s as more or less a recluse on his father's property in the Hollister Ranch, just north of Santa Barbara.
By 2001, he was working as a volunteer at a mental health clinic in Santa Monica, and surfing just once a year, at San Onofre. "People say, 'Well, if you'd kept going you could have kept on top of the game for many years,'" Aurness said with a shrug when surf journalist Drew Kampion asked if he regretted not carrying on as a surfing front-runner. "But I couldn't see trying to keep up that level of performance forever. I'd done my best. I was maxed out."
Aurness appeared in a small number of surf movies, including Cosmic Children, Pacific Vibrations, and Freeform, all released in 1970.