When Andy Irons won the Quiksilver Pro six weeks ago in France, he seemed well on his way to a second consecutive world championship, having built a substantial points lead over his nearest competitor.
He also seemed well on his way to becoming the most dominant pro surfer since Kelly Slater, winner of six world titles. Irons wouldn't hear any such talk, though, and was quick to point out that his nearest competitor was, and remains, the most dominant surfer of them all: Slater.
"He's still setting the level" by which other surfers are measured, Irons said. "This rivalry, if it can be called that, is good for the sport, for sure. But if you ask anyone on the tour, what we're all really trying to do is keep up with Kelly."
Today, with the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' World Championship Tour having moved to Oahu for the final two events of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and the season, it is Slater, coming off consecutive victories, leading Irons, whose last two finishes were a 33rd and a fifth.
Slater, 31, struggled last year in his return to the tour after a three-year hiatus, but has apparently regained his focus. He and Irons have four WCT victories apiece and, although Australia's Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow, who rank third and fourth, respectively, still have outside chances at winning the world championship, it figures to come down to Irons or Slater.
And there's a good chance the winner won't be determined until the season finale Dec. 8-20 at the X Box Pipeline Masters.
The possibilities are numerous, but Slater, from Cocoa Beach, Fla., could claim his seventh world championship with a triumph in the Rip Curl Cup at Sunset Beach, which is in progress with a competition window that runs through Dec. 7. But that will happen only if Irons struggles. If Irons finishes second to Slater at Sunset but wins at Pipeline, he will have successfully defended his championship. Either Fanning or Burrow will have to win both events to gain the title.
If the slumping Irons, 25, has anything going for him, it's that he is back in familiar territory and close to his home in Princeville on the island of Kauai. It was at Sunset last year that he secured his first world championship, and he went on to win the Pipeline Masters to claim his first Triple Crown title.
He called it the best day of his life, a feeling Slater knows well.