Strong start for Irons
Settling down apparently hasn't meant slowing down for Andy Irons on the opening day of the 37th annual Billabong Pipeline Masters.
Competing for the first time since getting married at the end of last month, the two-time defending champion of the most prestigious and longest-running professional contest in the world convincingly won his first-round heat yesterday and advanced straight to the fourth round.
Surfing in the very first 30-minute heat of the day, the 29-year-old from Hanalei, Kauai, notched a near-perfect 9.17 (out of 10) score for a successful barrel ride through the right-breaking Backdoor section of the Banzai Pipeline on his initial wave, and then backed it up with an 8.33 on his sixth and last for a winning total of 17.50 points for his top two waves -- the best overall heat score so far.
The Pipeline Masters is the third and final major Hawaii contest of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing series, as well as the season finale for the World Championship Tour.
"It's the end of the year, it's the last event, it's Pipeline and there's so much hype," said Irons, who has won four of the last five Pipeline Masters. "And Backdoor is my favorite wave in the world. It's dangerous and has that excitement. It's kind of a gamble: You don't know if you'll get aces or crap out."
No one has come up with aces at the Pipeline Masters and in the Triple Crown more often than Irons in the last handful of seasons. But besides adjusting to married life, Irons also has had to deal with a back injury he suffered soon after the wedding while surfing on Kauai. The injury forced him to pull out of the Triple Crown's second jewel without surfing a heat at the start of this month, and removed Irons from contention for the Triple Crown championship that goes to the top overall performer in the three events.
Irons is also the two-time defending Triple Crown champ, having won the overall series title four of the last five years too. Though the series title is out of his reach this year, Irons appears to have quickly regained his stride and could tie Kelly Slater's record of five Pipeline Masters wins with a victory.
"I'm not in the Triple Crown (race) this year, but just to be in the Pipe Masters -- I really want to do well," Irons said. "(The event) means a lot to me."
Waves were only in the 4- to 8-foot-face range yesterday. But with at least four days needed to complete the Pipeline Masters and very limited swell action forecast for the waiting period that lasts through next Thursday, Triple Crown officials decided to run all 12 heats of the non-elimination first round.
All winners of the four-man heats received byes and will next surf in the fourth round. Besides Irons, other winners included his younger brother, Bruce Irons --- the 2001 Pipeline Masters champ -- and Australians Bede Durbidge and Adrian Buchan.
Durbidge leads the Triple Crown ratings, while Buchan sits at No. 4. Buchan had Slater in his first-rounder, yet notched the top single-wave score -- a 9.63 -- so far on one of the few clean left-breaking Pipeline barrels of the day, and relegated the Floridian superstar to second place in the heat and a spot in the third round in the process.
"I've taken the same approach at Pipe that I did (in the first two Triple Crown events) at Haleiwa and Sunset. I'm not worried about who is in my heat, and I'm just going out there and focusing on my own game," said the 25-year-old Buchan, who is from Avoca, just north of Sydney. "Good preparation and good wave selection, and the rest will come."
The four lowest third-place finishers and all 12 fourth-place surfers from yesterday will surf against 16 non-WCT "Pipeline specialists" in the second round when the Pipeline Masters resumes, possibly today.
The Billabong Pro Maui, the third and final jewel of the women's Triple Crown, has one more day of competition remaining at Honolua Bay on the Valley Isle and also has until next Thursday to complete it.