This past fall, it seemed like Andy Irons was coming apart in front of our eyes. In early September 2008, at the Boost Mobile Pro at Trestles, he was visibly agitated. In his heats, his body English was that of someone who had already lost mentally—a far cry from the heat-winning machine that reeled off three back-to-back world titles in the mid-2000s. The man who had humbled Kelly Slater in the early years of his comeback was eliminated in perfect Lower Trestle's peaks by event wildcard Yadin Nichol, and one didn't have to be an insider to know that something was wrong.
The Quiksilver Pro France eleven days later was even worse. In his Round One heat against Jordy Smith and Brazilian Jihad Khodr, the former three-time event winner melted down. In three-to-five-foot waves at Les Estagnots, Irons seemed unable to complete even the most basic of top turns, and his frustration was tangible, as he began flinging his board into the open faces of waves. He finished the heat in last place with a 2.34 combined wave score out of a possible 20, withdrew from the contest, and was on a flight back to the States within 24 hours.
When he didn't show up for the Billabong Pro Mundaka—the second event of the European leg of the World Tour—the rumor mill went into overdrive, accusing Irons of everything from petulance to chemical dependency. Shocked by the response, in early October he agreed to an interview with Surfline.com's Lewis Samuels in which he argued his case, but also admitted, "I am not the guy who wants to eat you for breakfast anymore when we are in heats together." But the most telling passage in the conversation came when he stated, "What people don't understand is that I'm just as confused as they are."
In November, with the support of his long-time sponsor Billabong and the blessings of both the ASP and the WPS (the organization that represents and looks out for the interests of the surfers on the World Tour), Irons applied for and obtained a wildcard slot for the 2010 season, effectively allowing him a year off the tour without having to requalify through the WQS. It's only the second wildcard of it's kind, the first granted to Kelly Slater in 2003, when he decided he wanted to return to full-time competition after a three-year hiatus.
"They voted unanimously to give me the wildcard," Irons told me when I went to visit him on Kauai in early December. "They were all for it. I'm really thankful and excited, even though I don't know what exactly to expect."
On a warm and sunny Monday afternoon, Irons picked me up and took me with him to shoot nine holes of golf at a course just minutes from his home in Princeville. Though he had committed to surfing in the upcoming Billabong Pipeline Masters, he seemed relaxed and stoked about his upcoming year of chasing swell, the first time in a dozen years that he wasn't committed to the grind of the tour. —J.P.
So what really happened in France?
I think Europe breaks people. If you're on a bad one, that place really makes it bad! A lot of people have lost it there. It's crunch time. You've got three events in a row [Trestles, France, Mundaka], and if you're already in a bad place, the Europe leg can make it a lot worse. I got to France, surfed that one awful heat, and left the next day. I couldn't handle it; I was outta there.
What was going through your mind?
The first round I had Jordy and Jihad in my heat, and I was out there looking in, and, even though France is an event I've always loved, I was literally miserable. I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew I had to get outta there. It all started in J-Bay. I had just got back from a trip with Kelly, and we'd got killer waves and had a lot of fun. I was trying to get motivated to surf the contest, but as it got closer, I started getting less and less excited.
Once I got there and was back in the middle of the whole circus, it seemed so phony to me. I mean, it was great to see friends—Parko and the boys, and Occy was there, which was awesome—but I'd look in and see the circus tent, and then come in and do the post-heat interview. The whole thing just didn't seem…real. I remember thinking, "What am I doing?"
I used to be psyched to come in from a heat, do the interview, and get ready for the next round, but it had become so repetitious. I was saying the same answers, "I hope I do good in the next heat, I hope I do better, I really want to get a nine…"