The roster of surfers Phil Edwards beat to win the inaugural Surfer Poll Awards in 1963 is absurd. Here, at random, are just some of the top-20 vote-getters: Midget Farrelly, Butch Van Artsdalen, Mickey Dora, Dewey Weber, Greg Noll, Corky Carroll, Pat Curren, Donald Takayama—the list is a jaw-dropping assortment of surfing’s most iconic figures.
And at the top of the list—the stylish, enigmatic Phil Edwards.
In 1963, Surfer’s readership thumbed through copies of the magazine, thought back to the surf films they’d watched crammed into high school gyms and vets halls in recent years, and thought: Phil Edwards—that’s who. He’s the best surfer in the world. Then they scribbled his name on a ballot and mailed it to the mag’s Dana Point office.
Months later, in April 1964, the award winners congregated at a Dana Point meeting hall, and Hevs McClelland, the night’s emcee, bounded out to the stage, performed a deeply flawed cartwheel, then read an original poem to kick things off. When he announced the winner, Edwards approached the stage wearing a suit and tie, and accepted a solid gold medal.
Edwards demurred the recognition, of course. “I’m sure there are guys that get better rides every day than any particular ride that I made get on the same day,” he told SURFER in a July 1964 interview announcing the poll results. “Part of it is ability; part of it is publicity. The voters must be going on what they’ve seen in movies and magazines and basing their votes on publicity rather than what they have seen on one particular day or days.”
The interview makes it seem like if Edwards had his way, Dora would have beaten him. Hell, Edwards maybe even voted for the guy (Dora came in #14, by the way). “I tried to copy everything he did,” Edwards said of watching Dora at Malibu. “It was difficult for me to break away from his style and develop one of my own. Sometimes I feel like I’m a two-bit version of Mickey Dora.”
It’s incredible how humble and self-effacing Edwards was in his interview, considering where he was in his career at the time. He’d just beat out a field of surfers that includes probably 15 or so of the most important people ever to stand on a surfboard. A year earlier, footage of Edwards at Pipeline in Bruce Brown’s Surfing Hollow Days changed pretty much everything modern surfing thought about what kinds of barreling waves were rideable and how they could be ridden.
Yet, Edwards points out in his interview that it’s embarrassing for him to be considered a “champion” surfer because he’d never won a contest. He was Dane Reynolds fifty years before there was Dane Reynolds. Edwards doesn’t even seem all that interested in surfing, either, telling his interviewer that he was spending so much time sailing around on his beloved catamaran that he was out of surfing shape.
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The nascent pro surfing world still seems like a mystery to Edwards in 1964. It’s hard to believe now, but Phil Edwards, first Surfer Poll winner, and easily one of the top-ten surfers in history, was actually asked in his interview, “What is your occupation?” Pro surfing was not yet a thing. (Building surfboards was his answer). He didn’t even know how to respond to a question about the possibility of a future pro circuit with money prizes. “I think that question is a little ahead of itself,” he said.
Humble. Stylish. Polite. Self-effacing. Once-in-a-generation talent. Phil Edwards was the perfect choice for the Surfer Poll in 1963. The readers of the time deserve a round of applause. They picked the perfect guy.