THEN THERE WERE JUST TWO
Ex sarge, Billabong Pro Mundaka, Friday October 15th 2004.
The results we have seen from our reigning world champion Andy Irons this season have been exemplary. Coming into the Boost Mobile Pro, presented by Quiksilver, two events back, he had reached at least the quarter-finals at every WCT event. That is a startling accomplishment of both unrivalled consistency and professionalism, not to mention upholding his stunning ability and focus. It is an accomplishment that he, his girl Lyndie, his family, his Kauaian brothers, and his nation, should be well proud. Alas, at Trestles, he was exposed as a 'mere mortal' – he lost in round two to the new Captain Almerricka (that's Kelly Slater's adaption of the word America) Dane Reynolds. At least he got beaten by a countryman on the way to the top.
Commenting after finishing as runner-up in the Boost event at Trestles, six-times world champ Kelly Slater called it as it is. "Andy is an exceptional surfer! His performance level is maybe unmatched – ever, in the streaks of competition he's been in. This year we haven't seen all those wins like last season, but his results after six events are unbelievable – a first, several seconds, and a couple of thirds". As much as the boys, Andy's Top 45 peers, bore resentment and frustration with the incumbent champ's string of results and bloodhound zoning on defending his title and chasing a third, they could surely not have helped but to also hold admiration for his determination and resilience.
After winning the Quiksilver Pro in Japan and moving into second slot (but still over 1500 points behind AI) on the ratings, 2001 World Champ' CJ Hobgood wisely observed that despite the win, there was no reason to feel much measure of accomplishment, certainly in terms of world title contingencies, and every need remained to keep his head down hunting another victory. Stating the facts about Andy's 2004 dominance, Ceej said, "I don't want to really think about the ratings too much because he is so far ahead. I came to this contest thinking the only thing you could do to get as far as Andy has, is to WIN!, and now I feel like I have to win another two events before I can even think about touching him".
There was a collective sigh of relief when Dane took Andy out in the second round at Trestles. Galloping along the back straight, the bolter had stumbled, the pack given the opportunity to close the gap, so that a one horse race could again become a real race. CJ Hobgood, Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Nathan Hedge, and some longer shots, were all back in the race with at least an opportunity of heading the leader. Then came the Quiksilver Pro France, and a bounce-back performance from Andy that challenged the perfection of the La Nord conditions on the final day of the event.
Only Slater's campaign in France, which ended with a humbling combo-ed loss to Andy's brother Bruce in the semi-finals, saw any of the serious contenders consolidate their positions and chances in any relevant manner. On that incredible Sunday, while his challengers basically failed to consolidate, Andy boldly strode to victory, slapping both his detractors and peers hard, again throwing a gnarly points gap between he and the pack. Once and for all, he jumped onto the top shelf of surfing notoriety and achievement. It was a magnificent feat. Meanwhile, Kelly moved back to second slot, but still 1044 points behind Andy, and his vise-like grip on the lead.
Not really wanting to look at the facts and figures, we arrived here in Mundaka still thinking and hoping we had at least a five horse race, but yesterday, in the nine heats of the third round of the Billabong Pro that went down in stormy, fickle and inconsistent conditions on the otherwise famed Basque lefts, the facts were delivered hard and fast. First up Nathan Hedge, The Hog Mark II, went down to a revitalised and committed Tom Whitaker. Three heats later, in some thumping conditions, CJ Hobgood was trumped by a strong performance from Trent Munro who was rampaging on his backhand. Bye bye CJ. Finally, in the last heat of the day, we saw the Californian Lord Beschen take out the Floridian maestro Slater and thereby end his chances of claiming a seventh world championship in 2004. Then there were just two! Still two and a bit events out from season's end, the statistical facts now are that only Andy Irons or Joel Parkinson can be our world champion in 2004, and the odds are heavily stacked in Andy's corner.
For the moment, the race will only remain a race if Joel can at least equal Andy's result here in Mundaka. If Andy finishes just one spot ahead of Joel here, it's all over, and the Kauaian will be crowned a third time here in the Basque Country. Thankfully, they are on opposite sides of the draw, and so, as the two most outstanding performers so far in this event, they may be destined to meet in the final. For the sake of the sport, as well as the patronage of Flavio Padaratz's Brasilian WCT fixture next month, it would be preferable to keep the race alive, but those considerations are obviously and totally irrelevant for the surfing machine named Philip Andrew Irons.
There is an irony as well, in where we could potentially crown AI the Third. Several years back, when Pipeline was a specialty event, and the Rip Curl Cup at Sunset was being touted as the final event of the year, all sorts of WCT schedule configurations were being considered. Some wanted to start the year with Pipe, and finish in Europe, but the industry pundits heavily objected to finishing the world title race anywhere but in Hawaii. They insisted the world champ had to be crowned in tropical conditions, Hawaiian juice, wearing boardshorts, or 'trunks' as they call them there, and Sunset became it. In terms of media potential, competitor facilities, public amenities and spectator involvement, there are few worse places in the world than Sunset. Thankfully, we've since gone back to finishing the year at Pipeline, but, ironically, here we sit in rain-drenched Europe, a world title possibly culminating in thick rubber in waves that have, to this point, been anything but world-class. As always, the ocean is the final decider in this game. Hopefully the final day will deliver us a canvas of clean and barrelling conditions. Andy and Joel have definitely been the most outstanding and consistent surfers of the year, so we toast them both. May the best man win!