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A Fresh Start for Men’s Tour

Times Staff Writer

The world’s best professional surfers have gathered Down Under for the start of a 2005 campaign that will take them from Australia’s Gold Coast, south to Victoria, to Tahiti and Fiji and other mostly tropical destinations.

The season, which includes a September stop in San Clemente, will culminate with a prolonged stay in Hawaii. And the championship, barring a points-race runaway, will be decided during the season-ending Rip Curl Pipeline Masters, at the renowned Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore.

In no other sport is there a travel schedule as enviable as that of the Assn. of Surfing Professionals’ World Championship Tour. And on only one other tour, beach volleyball’s, do athletes apply sunscreen more liberally than they do clothing.

Yet surfing for a living is considered work, just as professional tennis or golf, or even playing volleyball on the sand, is considered a job.

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Competition is fierce in a format that pits competitors against one another in two-man heats until only one remains. Those who continually end up at or near the top re-qualify for the following year’s WCT, while those who struggle too often end up back on the World Qualifying Series tour, which is far less glamorous and truly a grind.

So, with this in mind the athletes will be pulling out the most radical maneuvers they have learned over the years -- cutbacks, tube rides, lip-floaters and 360s among them -- in a race for the title that begins as early as Tuesday, which is when the competition window opens for the Quiksilver Pro, the first of 12 events.

“It’s a fresh start, and everyone starts at zero,” said Andy Irons, 26, of Princeville, Hawaii.

What he means is that he’s not taking anyone lightly as he opens defense of a crown he has worn for three years in a row. Irons, a remarkably fast and fluid surfer, has won the most consecutive titles since Kelly Slater won an ASP-record five in a row from 1994 to 1998, giving him six overall.

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Slater might have added to his legend, but with nothing left to prove he left the tour and went into a three-year exile, only to find that he missed the competition and tour lifestyle.

He came back in 2002 and finished ninth. In 2003 he looked more like himself and finished second in a close duel with Irons that came down to the season-finale at Pipeline. Last year Slater finished third behind Joel Parkinson of Queensland, Australia, and Irons.

Irons, who still regards the 33-year-old Slater as the best surfer on the tour in many respects, was asked whether he thought he had anything left to prove and he hinted strongly that he’s out to break Slater’s record. “I’m still going to work just as hard,” he said. “I always put pressure on myself and now that I have three [titles], it’s even more pressure.”

Asked who his biggest threats are, besides Slater and Parkinson, Irons included his younger brother, Bruce, who struggled early in his WCT debut last season but closed strongly and requalified largely on the merit of a fourth-place finish in the Pipeline Masters.

Two days before that he won the prestigious Eddie Aikau Big-Wave Invitational in enormous surf at Waimea Bay. The contest was a specialty event with no bearing on the points race, but by winning Irons stepped boldly out of his brother’s shadow.

Mick Fanning of Tweed Head, Australia, and C.J. Hobgood of Satellite Beach., Fla., are others expected to make a strong showing. Hobgood won the title in 2001.

New qualifiers on the WCT this season include Chris Ward of San Clemente and Tim Reyes of Huntington Beach. Both have paid their dues on the WQS, and Irons, who considers Ward a more well-rounded surfer, likes both of their chances to re-qualify for 2006.

Meanwhile, a sentimental choice of practically everyone this season is Mark Occhilupo, 38, who says this will be his last go-around. “Occy,” as he is known, is already a legend in the eyes of his peers.

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He burst onto the scene as a brash and cocky teenager. He was ranked No. 2 in the world by the time he was 17. He starred as himself in the 1987 movie “North Shore,” and was fast becoming a superstar.

But then came a crash even he still has trouble understanding. He lost interest in the sport, quit the tour and became a recluse, turning to drugs, cigarettes and junk food, and ballooning to 245 pounds. For almost a year he rarely ventured outside.

Then, with the support of his sponsor, Billabong, and help from filmmaker and personal friend Jack McCoy, Occhilupo shaped up and bounced back. He made his first serious comeback attempt at 30. At 33, with Slater in exile, he won his first world championship and became the oldest to wear the crown.

“Winning my world title [in 1999] was paramount to my whole career,” he said last week during a news conference on the Gold Coast. “It was such a sanctifying feeling, coming back and achieving that, and I have been riding high on that ever since. It’s what’s kept me going.”

Now, apparently, he’d prefer the company of wife Mae and toddler son Jay to that of a bunch of much younger men wearing nothing but board shorts. “I’m looking forward to just settling down a bit,” Occhilupo said.


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