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SURFING

Paterson Finally Bows to Irons' Will in Final

Surfing: Good waves, talented competitors produce an exhilarating contest as Hawaiian edges Australian to win Billabong Pro at Lower Trestles.

October 01, 2000|JOHN WEYLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For four days, Lower Trestles--the break many top pro surfers call the best performance wave in the world--showed only brief glimpses of its potential.

For almost four years, Andy Irons, a 22-year-old Hawaiian whom many top pros consider the most talented athlete on the World Championship Tour, has likewise displayed only flashes of brilliance in contests.

But Saturday, wave and man peaked together as Irons won the Billabong Pro.

Glassy overhead sets popped from the Pacific in rapid succession and provided a platform for Irons and Australia's Jake Paterson to wow the crowd of about 1,000 that lined the rocky beach just south of San Clemente.

After a shaky start during which an admittedly nervous Irons failed to commit to his maneuvers and constantly caught his rail during turns, he finally gained a grip on his board and the confidence to elevate the week's surfing to a new level.

Paterson, who moved up to No. 3 in the Assn. of Surfing Professionals world rankings with the second-place finish, grabbed two quick waves that scored in the low sevens to take an early lead.

"The waves were so good, it was incredible," said Paterson, who knew he couldn't relax despite a comfortable lead at the midway point. "Andy's always so dangerous, and then he just blew up and earned some really good scores. Hands down to Andy, he went mad."

With 14 minutes left in the 30-minute heat, Irons paddled into one of the biggest waves of the contest, made a huge bottom turn and then went up into the lip and back down with the cascading section, executing a reverse 360-degree turn in the most critical section of the wave.

He earned an 8.75 on the wave and later completed another 360 on another wave. Paterson never backed down--hitting a 360 of his own--but came up short, 22.45-21.20.

"This is so sweet," Irons said. "It's been awhile since I've been in the finals and I think it was nerves at the start and the fact I was a little tired. I'm not used to surfing this many heats in a row.

"I finally just decided to go all out. . . . I knew I had to bust loose.

"I'm still a kook when it comes to contests, sometimes. I still want to paddle for any wave that looks like fun."

Irons came into the contest ranked second to last at No. 43 and had earned a spot on the tour this year only because Australia's Damien Hardman retired after four events. The victory moves Irons all the way up to No. 29.

He was ranked No. 20 in 1998, but often has been regarded as a classic underachiever in contests who was content to settle for surf-mag cover boy and video hero status, which, of course, isn't a bad life.

Much of the Irons clan was on hand this week and his mother, Danielle Tache-Irons, thinks her son will soon lose that label.

"It's totally a matter of maturity," she said. "He has always been a unique talent, but now he's got the fight and the focus to be a world champion."

Not this year, however. That honor will almost assuredly go to one of Irons' best friends, Kauai neighbor and role model, Hawaiian veteran Sunny Garcia.

Garcia lost to Paterson in the quarterfinals but increased his lead in the race for a world title. Even if Garcia loses in the first elimination round of the last two WCT events--in Brazil this month and at Pipeline in December--No. 2 Luke Egan of Australia would have to finish third or higher in both contests to overtake him.

Garcia, on a quest to win his first world championship after 15 years on the ASP tour, has yet to finish lower than tied for ninth this year and he has no intention of making an early exit in either event. The title, he says, "is mine to lose."

"I've got two weeks to go home, be with my kids and ride my dirt bike," he said. "I haven't been home since Tahiti [in May]. Then I'm going to go to Brazil and do what I've set as my goal for the last 15 years, win a world title."

San Clemente's Shea Lopez, who moved up to No. 8 after a 21.25-21.15 loss to Irons in the semifinals, had a 9.00--the highest-scoring wave of the day--on his second wave, but fell victim to another Irons comeback.

He was a bit surprised that Irons, needing a 6.91 to win with three minutes left in the heat, was awarded with a 7.0 on a medium-sized wave, but smiled and said, "You can't take anything away from him. He surfs unbelievable."

Notes

Australians dominated on the first day of the women's World Qualifying Series surfing event at T Street in San Clemente, sending six, including two-time defending world champion Layne Beachley, through to today's semifinal heats.

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