Surf & Turf

Why the world's best surfers love to kick back with golf
By Max Adler Photos by Morgan Maassen
February 02, 2014

Surf events run on island time, even off the mainland coast. For a four-day competition, the professional surfing circuit will convene for weeks to wait out the right conditions.

Some events, like The Eddie Aikau, require 20-foot swells and haven't been held in years. Just as you won't likely run into Adam Scott at the pitch 'n' putt, world-class surfers don't bother with puny waves or erratic conditions. High standards for Mother Nature translate to a lot of downtime in any endeavor, and for surfers, chasing heartbreakingly delicate bikinis is never a bad Plan B. But even these guys need a break from the beach now and then. From Fiji to France to Australia and beyond, the globe's top wave-riders typically find themselves near choice linksland, and they know what to do.

Surfers call a stretch along the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, the Seven-Mile Miracle, and at its easternmost tip lie the Arnold Palmer and George Fazio courses at Turtle Bay Resort. Each November, and usually well into December, the Triple Crown of Surfing culminates in the sport's premier event, the Pipe Masters, and the down days are a golf feast.

"I'll probably play like 25 times," says Evan Geiselman, 20, already a winner on the Association of Surfing Professionals Tour. He and 12 fellow pros have taken advantage of the resort's "Triple Crown rate" of unlimited golf for $600. "Once I shot a 78," says Geiselman, who has a homemade swing with a massive shoulder turn.


"You can never master either," says Dusty Payne, 25, ranked 44th on the ASP Tour, who video-analyzes his golf swing almost as much as his surfing. In addition to the difficulty of their tricks and maneuvers, surfers are judged on how relaxed they appear. Payne doesn't like to see any tension or unnecessary movements in his form. During a six-month period nursing an ankle injury, he hit balls almost every day and shot a 71 at the Kapalua Plantation Course.

The less-serious surfer-golfers show up for events like the Andy Irons Memorial Hack, a scramble to benefit the family of the three-time world champion, whose love of golf was as inverse to his ability as, tragically, his restraint was to controlled substances. It's as relaxed as golf gets, with the "goofy stance" challenge on one hole requiring left-handed play and the keiki (Hawaiian for "kid") challenge on another requiring the use of children's clubs. Still, the winning team in 2013 was captained by none other than surfing's most illustrious competitor, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, a 2-handicap who plays to it.

"Fifteen years ago nobody in the surf industry played golf, and now it seems almost everybody does," says Bob McKnight, co-founder of Quiksilver (and a member at Pine Valley). McKnight and his brand's star, Slater, usually play for one share of company stock. McKnight is "down six or seven shares right now."

It makes sense that Slater, 42 in February, has led the bridging of the gap between once-disparate sports cultures. Relentlessly health-conscious, he's the first to dominate far past surfing's traditional peak age, and his professionalism has influenced a generation that grew up idolizing him. If golfers have ever suffered from the stereotyping of the bourgeoisie, surfers have been labeled pothead transients looking to withdraw from society. But hang out at a pro surf event and the stereotype of Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn's character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" from 1982, feels as dated as the movie.

Julian Wilson, 25, ranked sixth and yet another surfer dating a blond model, also breaks 80. (The scuttlebutt is he's second only to Slater on course, but on our visit Wilson was focusing strictly on surfing in the days before the Pipe Masters.) In 2013, Wilson earned $206,000 in prize money. With endorsements, the top-10 surfers in the world make a million dollars per year or more. Kanoa Igarashi, 16, has been sponsored since age 7. The extra cash at least offsets the mercurial costs of flying with surfboards. "Golf clubs weigh more and are always $25, but I've had airlines charge me $100 and up per board," Payne says. "It just doesn't make sense."

With success, "More pros are joining golf clubs back home," says Brendon Thomas, editor-in-chief of Surfer. "Nowadays, our staff gets more access playing golf with these guys than by surfing with them."

"Golf's a nice counterbalance," Slater says. "In surfing you can pretty much go naked if you want to, but golf has rules. I like a bit of order and formality now and again." That doesn't mean Slater is going to tuck in his shirt or lower the volume of the rap beats kicking from the portable bass in his cart. On a par 3, he tosses some grass and says, "trade wind, side down," which means out of the east with more help than hurt.

Adam Scott even trusted his buddy, surfing celebrity Benji Weatherley, to tote his bag at a tour stop this year in Honolulu.

The most famous barrel of the Seven-Mile Miracle is called Pipeline, and many of the modest, salt-beaten houses that front it are owned by surf companies that lodge their athletes here during the Triple Crown. The scene in each yard looks the same: scattered surfboards and wet clothes, stocked coolers, propane grills, and perhaps a wedge leaning against a palm tree with some balls for chipping. Inside, athletes used to signing autographs are jockeying air mattresses for space.

"These properties make up the Augusta National clubhouse of surfing," says Sam Ainslie, an avid wave-rider and president of Kukio Golf Club (where Slater's a member). "This is where legends gather to look out and see what the next generation is doing."


Two factions exist within the world of pro surfing. Competitors, like Slater, have had their grandest moments donning a jersey with a number. Free surfers, as typified by a guy like Dane Reynolds, are those who eschew scored competitions in favor of producing videos that showcase, they believe, a spirit of experimentation and freedom more in line with the essence of surfing. The best still make a handsome living from endorsements. Reynolds is not a golfer, and is said to abhor it.

"I got hooked by the challenge of sustaining my concentration for four hours, and some guys just haven't reached that feeling," says five-time women's world champion Stephanie Gilmore, who played 25 rounds last year. She likes how golf and surfing are both very social.

It's hard to imagine the British Open refusing to hold play unless the wind speeds were 20 miles per hour or more. It's inconceivable to think of the trophy being presented to a man without shirt or shoes. But for all the differences between golf and surfing, it's more interesting to consider the similarities. Both require massive dedication to achieve even the most basic competence, and lifelong practice to maintain it. Wave size is analogous to tee markers: Everyone has their limit of what's enjoyable, though peer pressure can get in the way.

The opening ceremony of "The Eddie" is held even when the waves don't warrant competition. More important than winning or losing is the honor of being selected to stand in the circle with surfboard raised, and receive a lei. Eddie Aikau was a renowned surfer and lifeguard who died while attempting a rescue in 1978. A "waterman," he embodied humility, honor and aloha, that all-important Hawaiian word for peace and compassion that morphed into a salutation.

In large part because of its rules, so many golfers come to see their sport as a guiding moral force. Maybe due to its absence of rules, surfers feel the same way.