Kinetic Australian pro surfer and contest organizer from Queensland's Gold Coast; 1978 world champion and ten-year president (1999-2008) of the Association of Surfing Professionals. Born (1954) and raised on the Gold Coast, the son of a high school science teacher-fisherman father and a dance instructor mother, Bartholomew was a grade school honors student and a nimble soccer player (nicknamed "Rabbit" for his speed) before he began surfing at age 11. His family was poor, and when his parents split in 1966, Bartholomew helped support his mother and four sisters by stealing wallets from beachgoing tourists.
Not a great natural surfing talent, Bartholomew became a top rider through endless hours of practice, and by making a study of the entire sport, including wave conditions, surfboards, other surfers, and competition tactics. He also developed a great sense of style and flair; charding out of a huge tube at Pipeline, for example, Bartholomew might casually examine the fingernails of his right hand while gliding into deep water, then buff the digits on his chest in a quick gesture of self-congratulation.
As a juniors division surfer in 1972, Bartholomew was Queensland state champion and second runner-up in the Australian National Titles; in the men's division he was Queensland champion in 1973, 1974, and 1976; fourth in the 1974 nationals, and third in the 1976 nationals. Bartholomew's two greatest rivals throughout the period were both from the Gold Coast: Peter Townend (1976 world champion) and Michael Peterson (national champion in 1972 and 1974).
Professional contests in Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa in the mid-'70s offered enough money to keep a dozen or so surfers traveling from country to country over much of the year, Bartholomew included; the International Professional Surfers (IPS) world tour was formed in 1976, with the scruffy Gold Coast regularfooter as one of the tour's most enthusiastic supporters. "To actually make a living from what we were doing," pro surfer Shaun Tomson of South Africa later recalled, "I didn't think it was possible. Rabbit did. And a lot of us were carried along by his momentum."
Bartholomew's contest results in 1976 were poor, but in 1977 he finished runner-up to Tomson for the world title. The following year he won the season's first contest and held the ratings lead throughout the 11-event schedule to take the championship—earning an underwhelming $7,650 in total prize money.
Meanwhile, as presented in surf movies like Free Ride ('77) and Tubular Swells (1977), and in surf magazine interviews and profiles, Bartholomew had become one of the sport's most compelling figures. Slender (5' 10", 150 pounds), pale, and plain-looking, Bartholomew dazzled with the force of his personality. Inspired by a range of pop culture figures including J. R. R. Tolkien, Muhammad Ali, and David Bowie, he viewed the surfing experience as an opportunity for grand theater, surfing in the nude for a Tracks magazine cover in 1975 and dressing in a silk boxing robe and aviator shades for a Surfing magazine portrait shot. Pipeline, he said, was Mordor. Rival Mark Richards was Joe Frazier to his Ali. "I am the legacy of ancient warriors and kings," Bartholomew later wrote in his autobiography, gleefully going over the top. "I've passed through the dark caverns of fear, I've overcome the pain barrier and now fully acknowledge my ability to fly through cliffs and shoulder the mountains themselves."
Nothing was worth doing, as Bartholomew saw it, until it was done to extreme. He was a hell-bent driver, once picking up three speeding tickets in three states while travelling from Victoria to Queensland. He was an unbeatable competitive eater, tucking away seven pounds of food in one hour during a 1976 all-surfers event in Sydney. Friends and rivals were all pulled into his sphere. While on the road in the late '70s and '80s, according to four-time world champion Mark Richards, pro surfers would "go into a mad scramble" to see who got to sit next to Bartholomew at dinner.
Bartholomew finished third at the end of the 1979 tour, fourth in 1980, fourth in 1981, fifth in 1982, and second in 1983, then fell steadily down the ratings before retiring at the end of 1988. He won a total of eight world tour contests, and was a finalist in the Pipeline Masters in 1981, 1984, and 1985. (Riding Pipeline regularly in the winter of 1975-76, Bartholomew contributed greatly to what was soon known as the "backside attack," a sudden performance leap by Pipeline's left-foot-forward surfers.) Future three-time world champion Tom Curren would later cite Bartholomew as his greatest stylistic influence.
In the late '80s and '90s, Bartholomew was hired as a surf contest announcer by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP; the replacement group for the IPS), ran a surf school, and became a part-time environmental crusader, helping stop a harbor development at Kirra, the Gold Coast's premier surf break. He continued to write columns and features for surf magazines, as he'd done regularly since the mid-'70s. ("Bustin' Down the Door," his aggressive 1976 Surfer article, was misread by some Hawaiian surfers as an insult; he was jumped later that year while visiting the North Shore and had two front teeth broken out.) Bartholomew also coached the Australian amateur national team to wins in the 1992, 1994, and 1998 world contests.
Barthlomew began organizing local surf contests in 1989; three years later he was directing ASP contests, and from 1995 to 1998 he ran a series of high-profile (though non-world-rated) Billabong Challenge events. He succeeded Graham Stapelberg as ASP president in 1999, and was the main architect of the "Dream Tour" notion—never fully realized, but close—which sought to put the tour surfers in the best possible waves at the best possible time. He stepped down in early 2009.
Bartholomew was elected to the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1987 and to the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 2001. In 1999 he won the over-40 division of the Quiksilver Masters World Championships; in 2001 he finished 2nd, and in 2003 he again won. Bustin' Down the Door, his autobiography, was published in 1996 by HarperCollins and revised in 2002. A documentary film, also called Bustin' Down the Door, chronicling the nascent 1970s pro surf scene, featuring Bartholomew, Townend, Tomson, Ian Cairns, and Mark Richards was released in 2008.
Bartholomew was named a Member of the Order of Australia, a prestigious public service recognition, in 2009.