BY CHRIS TAKAHASHI | STAFF WRITER
When the top surfers in the world compete this week in the Billabong Pipeline Masters in Memory of Andy Irons, much of the suspense will be felt by surfers on the beach – not in the water – anxious for either qualification or requalification on the World Surf League (WSL). That is unless we experience large, flawless Pipeline showing classic form, and points in a surf contest become second to surfing the wave of a lifetime. It is Pipeline we’re talking about; both are likely scenarios that can mutually exist. But, because the wave of a lifetime is a fleeting experience, it all comes down to the scores on paper that are likely to shuffle the year-end rankings.
Since it’s the last event of the season and for many, the last chance to qualify for the WSL, the past few “lay” days of the waiting period (Dec. 8-20) have only thickened the plot for who can qualify and who is at risk of falling off the WSL. Let’s preview some of the qualification scenarios likely to take place.
Of the 34 surfers on the WSL each year, two surfers hot on the bubble are selected as wildcard picks for the season. These are often injury-replacement surfers that have previously competed at the highest level such as 2016 wildcard pick Jordy Smith. Smith shot up in the WSL rankings throughout the season and now stands at 3rd heading into the last event at Pipeline. His chance of requalification on the WSL for 2017 is all but guaranteed.
Each year, the top 22 on the WSL earn their berth for the following year’s season. Those on the bubble, and placed higher than 22, will often compete simultaneously on the World Qualifying Series (WQS). This altogether separate surf league, similar to the NBA’s D-League, allows young upstarts to qualify for the prestigious WSL. Only the top 10 on the WQS rankings will qualify for the WSL in the following year. But because one cannot qualify for the WSL before first qualifying in the WQS, the stack of competitors on this circuit is constantly in flux with the hottest up and coming talent. Even WCT surfers that fall out of the rankings (top 22) find it difficult to requalify for the tour while competing on the WQS.
For surfers on the cusp of the top 10 in the WQS, the anticipation of the Pipe Masters will leave them with hypothetical heat outcomes racing through their minds. For O‘ahu native Ezekial Lau, qualifying for the WSL will be a dream come true. He currently sits at 11 on the WQS and needs a surfer like Kanoa Igarashi, ranked 24th on the WSL and 5th on the WQS, to in fact double qualify. If Igarashi can post a high result at Pipeline that bumps up his 24th ranking to 22nd or lower, he will open up his spot on the WQS top 10 ranking. Lau would get the nod to join the top 10 on the WQS and, more importantly, the world’s best on the WSL for 2017.
Lau also competed in the Pipe Invitational event which may have proved another route to qualifying for the WSL. The top two surfers of the Invitational gain the final two berths in the main event, the Billabong Pipeline Masters. Advancement to the Pipeline Masters would have given Lau the opportunity to earn valuable points toward his WQS ranking. In his opening round on Monday morning, Lau advanced due to an interference call on another surfer. Unfortunate for Lau, he was unable to advance past the semifinal round.
Up and coming O’ahu native, Finn McGill claimed top honors in the Pipeline Invitational event held Monday. This is the first time McGill has surfed in the Triple Crown and he has rightfully earned a coveted spot into the Pipeline Masters. The 16-year old North Shore local cruised to first place in the finals, besting Gavin Beschen, Joshua Moniz, and Victor Bernardo. Beschen took second and will join McGill in the main event.
For Portugal’s Federico Morais, the Hawai‘i leg of the WQS season has proved a whirlwind so far. Before the Triple Crown events at Hale‘iwa and Sunset Beach, the 24-year-old could have decided to pack his bags for Portugal and begin training for next year’s season. Instead, Morais impressed crowds and surfed challenging conditions with power and poise that led him to the final heat of both the Hawaiian Pro at Hale‘iwa and the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach.
Morais surged through the WQS rankings with these top finishings and now sits at 3rd on the WQS. He is now a lock-in competitor for the WSL in 2017. Due to his efforts in the prior Triple Crown events, Morais was selected, along with Kauai’s Bruce Irons, to compete in the main event – the Billabong Pipeline Masters – without donning a jersey in the Invitational event. Morais, who will be a rookie on the WSL next year, will have a chance to compete head-to-head at Pipeline against his new cohort of competitors before the 2017 season officially begins.
For Irons, competing in the Billabong Pipeline Masters will surely test his emotions and bring to light his best surfing. The Pipeline Masters has been dedicated to his late brother and former three-time surfing world champion, Andy Irons, who was often a fixture at Backdoor (the “right”- breaking wave at Pipeline). Bruce does not share the type of success his brother had from competing at the elite level, but he has nonetheless carved out a reputation as one of the best free surfers (largely shunning contests) in addition to being an expert at surfing Pipeline.
With the Trials event underway, the WSL surfers are gearing up for their opening rounds this week. Conditions are predicted to improve as the waiting period continues through Dec. 20. Many familiar faces will also be top prospects to win the Pipeline Masters, namely John John Florence, seven-time Pipeline Masters champion Kelly Slater, and defending Pipeline Masters champion from 2015, Adriano de Souza.
Florence is looking to finish the best year in his young surfing career. He clinched his inaugural WSL title at the most recent event in Portugal; he took first in the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay; and he was recently awarded the “Surfer’s Poll” by Surfer Mag for the third straight year. Only a Pipe Masters and Triple Crown Championship would cap off an already historic year for the North Shore local.
“I’m just gonna go and surf and have fun,” Florence said in an interview with WSL. “Pipe is really my favorite event in the world.”
At age 44, Slater will also be participating in the Billabong Pipeline Masters. Slater has won the event numerous times and still believes the event to be the most iconic on the WSL. Many world championships are won or lost at this final event when points are on the line.
“There’s something special about winning the last event of the year,” Slater said when interviewed by WSL on its Dawn Patrol live stream, which airs each morning of the contest period. “The event at Pipeline wraps up everything. Plus, on top of that, the trophy [sic]. It’s such a great trophy every year. Anyone who wins this contest would be happy walking away with the trophy and not even the paycheck.”
The Billabong Pipeline Masters in memory of Andy Irons will likely see opening rounds of the main event this week. Check out http://www.worldsurfleague.com/events/2016/mct/1540/billabong-pipe-masters for the latest updates on weather and surf conditions. Competition days are usually announced at 7:30 a.m. HST.