The scene: Kelly Slater's parked on the side of the road in downtown L.A. It's four weeks ago today. He's just squeezed in 13 holes of golf before sunset and he's on his way to dinner with friends. He picks the phone up and dials a number in Australia.
There's always something cool about "Kelly Slater" coming up on your caller ID. The teenage fan in you never goes away. I toy with the idea of screenshotting my phone to capture this singularity but worry I might accidentally hang up on the champ in the process and be left waiting another five years for a return call. I answer.
We talk for half an hour; most of that time taken up by Kelly grizzling about how he feels like a bag of bones right now. He tells how he's been worked on by an army of human panelbeaters every day for a week and jokes he's finally feeling every one of his 41 years. He tells how he just got back from Fiji where he ran into Mick. Despite the collective will of surf fans the world over for this whole Mick and Kelly world title thing to go Shakesperean like it did between Kelly and Andy Irons a decade ago, it was pure happenstance the pair met in Fiji. Kelly had booked Tavarua six months in advance, while Mick booked his ticket to Fiji two days before when a swell popped up in the Tasman Sea. Neither knew the other was there and the pair met in the channel at Cloudbreak, Mick in a Fijian longboat and Kelly idling over on a ski. The handshake itself was awkward – wronghanded, upside-down, clammy – but the sentiment was genuine. The pair has been around the track enough times together for this to not get weird. Although a profession of love a la 2003 might not be out of the question after the dust has settled this week, and I'm already unsure how I'd feel about that.
Back in the car I ask Kelly about Mick. "Do you feel your relationship with Mick has change…" The mute night sky of L.A. suddenly burns white like magnesium and Kelly's green eyes reflect a swoosh of light. "Whoooooah!" yells Kelly. "That's so weird! Literally right when you said Mick's name I just saw the biggest shooting star I've ever seen in my life. Literally as you asked that question. I thought it was a firework it was so bright. That was crazy. And I'm in Los Angeles where you don't see shit in the sky at night." When I ask him what he thinks this celestial firecracker means he replies, genuinely perplexed, "I… I don't know?" He texted me a photo of the shooting star an hour later just to make sure I wasn't thinking he was cosmically delaminating.
And so here we are at the Pipe Masters a month later and the day has arrived. Mick and Kelly would surf their first Pipe heats today. This morning was an ugly duckling morning. Even as a guy shone a green laser-pointer into the lineup at 6:15 a.m. this morning something didn't look right about it. The swell was from the leading edge of the Aleutian system and had a raw, west aspect to it. Most everything was closing out. Mick – as he has done every morning for the past month – was the first guy out, but white lightning was hardly setting The Pipeline on fire. They were hard to find. Parko was watching on from his backyard when he got a call informing him that he had been nominated as the surfers rep for the day (Ace Buchan and Kieren Perrow were both out injured) and would have to make the call whether to run or not. With so much on the line for his friend he was rattled. As he walked up the beach he stopped and spoke to Mick, and Mick told his friend he'd rather wait. Joel got to the contest site where he found everything was green lights. They all wanted to go. Like, really wanted to go. Joel is one of those guys who doesn't do confrontation well, and while his brain said no his head kept nodding and before he knew it the contest was called on for the day. He was nervous. He wasn't sure whether he'd just sent his mate to the gallows.
Parko needn't have worried. The ugly duckling morning was a swan by 10 a.m. The trades kicked and Pipe pumped and both Mick and Kelly surfed their first heats like the title belonged to them. Mick took an eight and a seven without priority and dissected the heat. His pulse stayed low. Kelly meanwhile put on a top hat and swung a cane and put on a show. Gone was the wretched, buckled, and beaten figure who'd left the water in Portugal seven weeks earlier after losing all hope of this World Title. Kelly looked reborn. Today Pipeline was the swimming pool from Cocoon, because the old geezer jumped in and was suddenly 20 years old again. And the incredible physicality of Kelly Slater was one thing. In one Pipe tube Kelly flattened himself on his board like a cat falling from an apartment window and somehow squeezed out. The black pearl of his head pinballed. He danced like no one was watching. But then you add to this the justified arrogance of him standing tall in the maw of Backdoor, too deep, too showy…but just knowing that he's gonna be shot out of this thing like a suntanned cannonball. He came in and held court for as long as anyone would listen. He's got a tagger from the New York Times in tow working on a feature piece, and the guy was warned that Kelly might dodge him artfully, with this whole world title thing happening and all. Well, an hour after Kelly plonked himself down this morning beside the journalist and started soliloquizing, the journalist interrupted Kelly and excused himself, "I think I got plenty, thanks." Kelly has to win Pipe to win the world title. Now just repeat those words again in your head and think about what you saw today. Hmmm.
Four weeks ago in his car in L.A. a voice down the phone line from Australia asked Kelly Slater: "Does it feel like fate for you the way the numbers have fallen and that you have to win Pipe to win the world title? Not make the semis, not make the quarters, you have to win Pipe. There's a certain romanticism about that would you agree?"
"Yep, I do," he replied. "It's bizarre. I'm going to have to look back at it later on and work out what it means, but for Mick to lose to Ottz in those waves in Portugal, I was not expecting that, and it was like a magical thing where Ottz was the last person to beat Andy in a heat and that was at Supertubes, then Ottz won his only contest he ever won at Supertubes and he beat Mick to keep me in by one heat. It's pretty crazy. I'm not sure what the connection is there or if there is one. Maybe it's just me. But there is some weird thing there for me, this golden prize, it's literally as all or nothing as you could possibly have for a contest and there is definitely a bit of romanticism there for me. But I've got to put that aside and I've got to go and win a contest. For me to just have a shot at this is a huge bonus and those low moments will be forgotten when I get to Pipe. That being said, I'd give myself a 5 percent chance of something happening at Pipe."
But for Kelly Slater at Backdoor, 5 percent of the time works every time. This is his domain and suddenly there seems to be one eventuality being delivered by the universe – Kelly will win Pipe. Mick, a raging pragmatist, acknowledged this weeks ago and started work on his own plan. If he makes the semis he takes Kelly out – win, lose or draw. Mick's destiny is in his own hands. He lost his non-elimination heat this afternoon to John Florence, meaning he now needs to win two further heats to win the World Title. John John stood as the guy most likely to scupper Mick's title. If they'd both kept winning they'd have met in the quarters…meaning Mick would have to beat John John Florence at Pipeline to win the world title. Those are words no Australian wants to be hearing.
But Mick changed his destiny in the dying throes of his heat this afternoon. Already beaten, he dropped in on John John on the last wave of the heat, scoring an interference and dropping from second to third. It seemed an act of frippery, a bird flipped to the universe with the heat already lost. But that drop-in might just be butterfly wings flapping in the Amazon. It meant that instead of surfing against Julian Wilson and John John – young, bristling, Pipe savvy, very ready for the Mick and Kelly era to end – standing between him and the World Title, Mick now needs to beat an injured CJ Hobgood and a wide-eyed Yadin Nicol, who's into the quarters for the first time in his career.
Mick says he never saw John John on that wave, let alone plotted the implications for the draw in his head. Yet that drop-in might have more consequences for this World Title than Tom Carroll's finger-paddle interference on Todd Holland did 25 years ago. Tom was here today. Wouldn't miss it for the world. As he watched on he actually seemed to have more invested in this world title than either Mick or Kelly. He's fresh from telling his story – his real story, including some ugly home truths – back home in Australia in a book with brother, Nick. The truth has set him free, he looks a foot taller (he'll still never play in the NBA), but he is simply happy and thankful to be here in Hawaii and get the chance to watch the two giants of the modern era duke this thing out in 12-foot Pipeline. This world title may be remembered as one of the greats. It's already been written in the stars.