Ten years is a long time. The ASP World Tour is very much different than it was a decade ago. But then again, you had Kelly Slater, Taj Burrow, Mick Fanning, and Joel Parkinson in the top five, so things haven't really changed that much.
But 2003 was critical, as it really ignited the Kelly/Andy Irons rivalry. Their battle would become the greatest surfing clash since the Aussies vs. Hawaiians in the mid 70s. We thought that the start of the 2013 ASP World Tour season would be a great opportunity to look back on that pivotal year.
"The switch to the 'best-two' wave scoring system in 2003 and amendments to the judging criteria to include variety were really impactful. The weaker surfers were immediately exposed, and guys like Andy, who was at the zenith of his career, excelled," say Jonathan Jenkins, who was editor of Australia's Surfing Life Magazine at the time and is now on the marketing side at Billabong.
Following the shortened season of 2001 due to the atrocities of 9/11, in 2002, a 23-year-old Andy Irons held off an all-Australian contingent to take his first title, winning at Bells, Tahiti, and Pipe. Irons represented a new generation and a potential dynasty in the making. But Slater had shined a few events and wasn't fully committed, making Irons' title a bit hollow. Slater has since admitted that his father's passing had serious affects on his mental state. He has written that he wasn't as worried about winning events as winning a fight with someone – that turned out to be Andy.
"It was an amazing time for Billabong. Their team was ridiculous -- Joel, Taj, Andy, Occy, Luke, Rasta, Mick Lowe, Dorian, Donavon -- all very much dominating and achieving and maintaining fame in their different ways," remembers Jenkins, "And it was a real boom time for surfing. A lot of growth within the industry, and its presence really hitting mainstream airwaves thanks to crossover influences like Jack Johnson, some Hollywood films and the likes of Kelly returning to the tour after his famous public romance with Pam Anderson."
With Kelly refocused on the tour, the stage was set for a heavyweight brawl the likes of which surfing had never seen. The storyline didn't get started at the maiden event with both Slater and Andy going out of the Quik Pro Gold Coast before the quarters and Dean Morrison taking it. However at Bells, when Slater fell to Mark Occhilupo in round four, Irons quickly disposed of Occhilipo in the quarters and went on to beat Joel Parkinson for his first victory of the year.
"I know that Andy was just getting more secure and on a better path, he girlfriend at the time seemed to have a great effect on him and I'm sure helped him level out and focus," shares noted surf photojournalist Tom Servais.
And then it was on. For the next four events, the two delivered knock out blows. Slater took the Billabong Pro Teahupoo. Irons scorched the Quick at Tavarua, at which Slater was absent.
"He wasn't just charging waves, hell bent, like he had always done surfing free-surfs, he was decoding the competitive system," adds Jenkins, "By that time, any of the young brash, punk behavior Andy might have had lingering in his system was just about dissolved. He'd matured markedly to win his first title and that matured him further. And he just kept on winning."
Slater came back to beat fellow Floridian Damien Hobgood at the Billabong Pro J-Bay while Irons' started the tradition of top seeds falling to local wildcard Sean Holmes.
Richard Lovett took the Boost Mobile at Trestles. Ironically, Andy was edged out by younger brother Bruce in the third round. But Andy returned to axe Phillip MacDonald in the Quik Pro France, after MacDonald had edged out Slater in the semis. Irons then slipped in round one of the Billabong Pro Mundaka and Slater sailed to the final where he beat Taj Burrow. Slater made it two in a row by taking the Nova Schin Festival in Brazil as Andy went out in the quarters. At that point, either Slater or Irons had won the last nine of ten events.
"Kelly, was just coming out of his retirement, and starting to get a feel for competing again, and at the same time affected by the death of his dad. It took him awhile to get his confidence back," adds Servais, "And I think when he first came back to compete, he was being too polite in the water. He told me something to that effect one time -- no friends when the horn blows. Being nice and letting the other guy get the first wave can make or break a lot of heats."
Slater had the lead when they arrived in Hawaii, but Irons was red hot.
"It was like any sport where you have the young guy coming up taking on the top dog," offers Reef McIntosh, a friend and fellow Kauai native of Irons but a Quiksilver teammate of Slater, "Andy was fired up to show people that it could be done."
Sunset has never been Slater's wave. It still isn't. He took an early exit, while Irons made the final, ceding to Jake Patterson by less than a point.
And just like that, everything would come down to Pipe. That year, the format at Pipe was still four man heats, and for the first time that year, Slater and Irons surfed the same heat. It happened to be the final with the world title on the line. Then down by the water's edge, right before the heat, came one of the most talked about moments of pro surfing history. Just before they paddled out, Slater came in tight and whispered in Irons' ear, "I love you man. Good luck."
Those words would become the basis of their heated clash.
"He felt like I was trying to play a game with him before going out in the final," Slater later explained in the Quiksilver film 'Letting Go,' "But I really wasn't."
"It was kind of like 'This is it. Let's have a good time. I'm totally worn out. It's been a long year.' In saying that, I was saying a lot of things. He looked at my kind of strange ... I know he thought I was trying to play some sort of mind game with him."
The two paddled out with MacDonald and Parkinson. Slater was already the white knight of surfing, but the Hawaiians wanted to see the title come back to their islands.
"Derek Ho had won the world title and more recently, Sunny Garcia won in 2000. But the Hawaiians wanted to bring it back. Everyone knows how proud we are when it comes to winning anything -- especially in surfing," said McIntosh who watched the title come down to this heat.
Slater found his waves, but Irons got the win.
"I can't really speak for him but I know Kelly is an emotional guy. And that year Kelly's emotion might have interfered with his ability to win the title. Andy got in his head a little. The irony is that Kelly is usually is the one getting in other peoples' heads," remembers Slater's good friend Ross Williams, "It might have been a crushing defeat that year but I think it helped him grow as a man. I was always a proud supporter of Kelly because I know he's a stand up guy."
2003 was just another learning experience for a guy that is always evolving.