The Return of the King
Five years after leaving the pro surfing circuit, Kelly Slater came back to force a not-so-friendly showdown with Andy Irons at the Pipe Masters
Were it not for Kelly Slater, this week's XBox Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu would have been little more than a coronation for ASP WorldTour defending champion Andy Irons. A 25-year-old Kauai native, Irons would be wrapping up a second straight title at Pipe, pro surfing's signature event. Instead, Irons found himself in a familiar (if exasperating) role: underdog to the 31-year-old Slater. A six-time world champ, Slater returned to the tour full time last March, after competing only sporadically since 1998, and Irons's chances of successfully defending his title suddenly got tougher. "Kelly has been the guy for so long," an idle Irons said last Sunday, when small surf forced a temporary halt in the competition. "You just knew he'd be there in the end."
With a scant 96 points separating the top-seeded Slater and the second-seeded Irons coming into the Pipe Masters, the final event of the season, the stakes could not have been clearer: Whichever one finished higher in the tournament would win the 2003 ASP title. Adding to the drama of the North Shore showdown was the relationship between the world's top two surfers, one that can be, according to one insider, rather frosty. Irons hardly defused such talk, saying, "Kelly's had his time. Actually, he's had a lot of times. Now it's his time to move on."
Slater, one of the sport's most intense competitors, clearly had other thoughts. After winning his record sixth ASP crown in 1998 at age 26, he had struggled through two years of semiretirement, watching as two older rivals—Australia's 33-year-old Mark Occhilupo in '99 and 30-year-old Sunny Garcia of Hawaii in 2000—won titles in his absence. But when Irons, long the heir apparent to Slater, won last year's title handily, Slater committed to a comeback.
Irons, with four wins to Slater's two, held a slight edge in the points standings into the fall, but Slater's back-to-back victories in Spain and Brazil in October virtually assured him of a seventh title; a top 10 finish at the Rip Curl Cup at Oahu's Sunset Beach in late November would have given him a nearly insurmountable lead. But Slater's shocking early-round loss at Sunset, combined with Irons's eventual second-place finish, reduced Slater's lead to those negligible 96 points heading up the coast to Pipeline.
With competition on hold until at least Wednesday, the name of the 2003 ASP champion remained in doubt. What was certain, however, was that Kelly Slater was once again the sport's man of the year.