With the start of the Championship Tour set to kick off in Hawaii in December, we're taking a look at eight of the toughest competitors on Tour. To be the best you gotta beat the best, and these are the dreaded heat draws.
John John Florence has more wins in Brazil than he does at Pipeline. Identified as the heir to the Pipe throne before he was even out of elementary school, it's one of those weird twists of fate that he's never ascended to the top of the Pipe Masters podium.
Widely considered the most naturally talented Pipe surfer of his generation, Florence is a two-time World Champion, a Triple Crown winner and a future Olympian. From pumping Bells and Margaret River to wedging Rio, he's tallied wins around the world, but somehow a Pipe Masters crown has alway evaded him.
Credit where credit is due, in 2019, Florence sucked it up, defied doctor's orders after being sidelined the second half of the season with a knee injury and surfed his way to a fifth-place result. It was enough to hold off 11-time World Champ Kelly Slater in the hunt for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But for more than a decade Florence's road at the Pipe Masters has been a bumpy one.
Since 2008, when he was just a pint-sized 14-year-old, Florence has only missed one Pipe Masters (in 2018 due to injury). He's finished runner-up twice, but otherwise, in those 11 years he has never gotten past the Quarterfinals. Slater's been an especially tough draw for him, beating him three times -- in 2010 and 2011, as well as the Final of the 2013 event, which was held in classic barreling conditions. Fellow Floridians CJ and Damien Hobgood also handed Florence losses early in his career. And the last time he made a Final was in 2017, where he came up short against Jeremy Flores.
But what's done is done. Competitive results don't diminish Florence's natural affinity for Pipe. Besides Slater, there's nobody else on the Championship Tour today that has more of a connection to the break than him. With the casual grace of Gerry Lopez, the aplomb of the late Derek Ho and the risk-vs-reward intelligence of Slater, Florence's natural abilities at Pipe put him amongst the best ever. All he needs now is the trophy to prove it.
And this may be the year Florence breaks through. He was well on his way to a third World Title in 2019 when his ACL betrayed him in Brazil. After surgery and a long rehab process, his surfing has been tack sharp lately. Posted up at home on the North Shore for the last eight months during the pandemic, he'll be heading into the 2021 season refreshed, revitalized and ready to go. And starting the year at Pipe rather than finishing there could definitely play into his favor.
For starters, he's healthy. A healthy John is a dangerous John. He's also had ample time to dial in his boards with shaper Jon Pyzel, which are looking especially spicy at the moment. And with his closest friends and family around, he'll have the benefit of having more of a pit crew than anyone else on Tour.
But more than anything, there won't be any of that year-end pressure. There's no World Title race to distract. There's no Triple Crown to contend for. There are no requalifying scenarios that will playing out in real time. And due to health and safety guidelines, there won't be hordes of people on the beach.
Florence literally gets to start with a clean slate. He'll paddle out for his first heat as if it was just another quiet day at home. And as we've seen over the years, that's when he seems to draw his most inspired lines.
Florence has the purity of a soul surfer deep down in his heart and getting a chance to charge his favorite wave without all the noise could be what carries him over the edge in his quest for his first Pipe Masters victory.