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Phil Edwards, a man of many firsts: first at Pipe, first SURFER Poll winner (1963), and perhaps the first real Best Surfer in the world. Edwards’ powerful, on-rail approach ran in glaring contrast to the technique of the era's featherweights. Photo: Browne

Phil Edwards: Surfing’s First Media Star

An interview with History of Surfing's Matt Warshaw about the sport's original pro surfer

Before there was Dane Reynolds (like way, way before), there was Phil Edwards. Touted as one of the best surfers in the late 50s, Edwards was the essence of cool. He was the original power-surfer. He was credited as the first to ride Pipeline. He hung with Miki Dora. He had unmistakable style. As competitive surfing gained popularity throughout the decade, Edwards dipped his toes in the contest scene, but for the most part, he avoided wearing the jersey as much as possible. Instead of gaining notoriety through contest rankings, he stole the hearts of the growing surf population with his smooth footwork. In 1963, the Phil Edwards Model was introduced by Hobie Surfboards, becoming the sport’s first signature model. Here’s what Matt Warshaw has to say about him in his most recent History of Surfing chapter [Read the whole thing here]:

Had it been anybody else, eyes would have rolled and sotto voiced "sell-out" remarks would have made the rounds from beach to beach, surf shop to surf shop. But Edwards was beyond criticism. Rebels liked him because he wasn't a trophy-chaser and because of his Dora connection. The USSA crowd liked him because he was clean-cut, and while he didn't often compete, he could be persuaded occasionally to work as a surf contest judge. In 1964, even though others were now riding at Edwards' level (and the man himself was spending increasing amounts of time on his self-built catamaran), he was a landslide winner in the first Surfer Poll Awards, as voted by the readers of Surfer magazine, and the accolades piled on from there. Surfing Illustrated named Edwards "Best Overall Surfer" in 1965, and he was among the first group of inductees to International Surfing's Hall of Fame. Edwards made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1966, with a headline calling him the "world's best on a board." Reporter Bob Ottum added, "Phil Edwards is responsible for giving the sport its Jack Armstrong look."

To find out more about Mr. Edwards, we rang up Warshaw and asked him a few questions about surfing’s original media star.

Phil Edwards was close to Miki Dora, who was four years his senior. How did Dora affect Edwards’ surfing and career?

Dora was the better surfer, at first. So when Phil and Miki were out there by themselves having friendly duels at Lowers and San Onofre, Phil was picking up all kinds of technique. But I think Miki also helped make it easier for Phil to be more independent and more anti-establishment. Miki was way more in-your-face and fuck-off-ish. But Phil didn't march to anybody's orders either, and some of that confidence probably came from his friendship with Miki.

People seemed to love both of them, even though neither could win a championship. What is it about surfing vs. other sports that makes fans idolize people based on their style rather than their ability in a jersey?

Wayne Bartholomew said, ‘Style is everything to me,’ and Tom Curren said, ‘Style is the whole point of surfing.’ There’s room for discussion, I guess, but a lot of surfers, myself included, would say that Wayne and Tom both shoot bullseyes.

What do you think Edwards fundamentally understood about surfing that Dora didn’t, or perhaps just ignored?

Fundamentally, Edwards had a higher regard for his fellow man. He wanted to share surfing with the world, explain it to people. Dora didn't really like people and didn't want to share his waves or his sport or his feelings.

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Both surfing’s rebellious crowd and the clean-cut contest faction seemed to be fans of Edwards. Why was that?

He looked like a hero quarterback, like Johnny Unitas, and had that easy smile, was smart and funny, and came off like a guy you'd want to have a beer with. Edwards was impossible not to like. And of course, he was a surfing genius–rough and smooth at the same time, like a dancer or a boxer. Then again, like Dora, you always got the feeling that Phil was his own man. To a point where, even though he was a huge commercial sellout in the mid-'60s, he just got a total pass. He was so revered and so cool that the dumb stuff didn't stick. When other famous surfers turned up in ads wearing shitty nylon competition-stripe jackets, they were selling out. Phil does it and totally gets a pass. Even Dora got razzed for doing Hollywood "Beach Blanket" movies. Edwards never took a hit, as far as I know.

He almost reminds me of a 1960s version of Slater.

Maybe in that they're both so handsome and talented. But Phil never had the competitive side like Kelly does. That, and he pretty quickly saw how limiting a full-time life in surfing was going to be. He got his big double-handful of surfing, and was satisfied, and moved on.

Edwards sailed away on his catamaran at 29, never to return to competition again. Why did he intentionally end his surfing career so young and abruptly?

Phil surfed every day, more or less, for 20 years. At one point he was the consensus best surfer in the world. He had a restless mind and liked new challenges, and I think it was probably the most natural thing in the world for him to let surfing go and move forward, shed his skin, try something different, seek new adventures. I always respected Phil for getting out like that.

In a 1964 Surfer interview, Edwards said he "never considered surfing a particularly competitive sport," and that he "didn't see what the point [of surf contests] was." Do you think he still feels that way today?

I don't think he pays much attention to surfing in general and hasn't for years. Contest especially. In the few times we've talked, he never brought up a competition. That part of surfing never appealed to him, and I'm sure it still doesn't.

[Featured Image: Phil Edwards, Photo by Bud Browne]

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