It had been a couple of years since I last dropped in on the U.S. Darts Masters, so a refresher course was called for before the start of play Thursday.
It was learned that two things of significance had occurred since the event pairing Pro Darts Corporation champions from Europe against top players from the U.S. and Canada — think of it as the Ryder Cup with smaller and sharper clubs — moved from the Tropicana to Mandalay Bay:
— Phil “The Power” Taylor — the Babe Ruth of pro darts — retired. Taylor, a former toilet manufacturer from Stoke on Trent, England, won 16 world championships and was so popular he finished runner-up in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award in 2010.
— The tour survived a serious case of indigestion during the 2018 Grand Slam of Darts in Wolverhampton, England, when a foul odor wafted from the stage during a match between Scotland’s Gary Anderson and Dutchman Wesley Harms.
Each player blamed the other.
“I swear on my children’s lives that it was not my fault,” said Anderson, the reigning U.S. Darts Masters champion. “I had a bad stomach once onstage before and admitted it. So I’m not going to lie about farting onstage.”
Yes, he actually said the f-word.
Deadpanned PDC chairman Barry Hearn: “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Something doesn’t smell right.”
As the players toed the oche — the throwing line — Thursday, a hint of coconut, banana and pineapple with notes of clove, cinnamon and vanilla invaded the olfactory senses. It had nothing to do with Anderson’s match against Elliott Milk, a prison warden from South Dakota. It was the scent Mandalay Bay uses to make its casinos and ballrooms smell of flowers instead of cigarettes.
Since exploding from pubs into the sports mainstream on the other side of the pond via a bawdy party-type atmosphere in the 1990s, professional darts has been dominated by throwers from England and countries close to it. This mostly explains the World Series of Darts, an international competition that began in 2013 to introduce the sport to new audiences.
“One-hundred and AYYYY-TEE!” as the public address announcer bellowed in Michael Buffer-ish fashion any time a player tossed three darts into the triple 20 slot on the board, the score most sought during the countdown from 501 points to zero. The game is won by the first player who throws a double point total to finish at zero. The first player to win the most games in a leg, or series — at the U.S. Darts Masters it was best of 11 — wins the match.
As usual, the darts throwers from England and countries close to it dominated their North American counterparts Thursday, winning all eight first-round matches.
“They’ve been doing this for years,” said Leonard Gates of Houston, who lost 6-0 to 2018 world champion Rob “Voltage” Cross, a former electrician from Kent, England.
Gates, who has an interesting former occupation of his own — he was once a minor league pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization — said throwing 180s is like painting the outside corner in baseball. Only in baseball, sometimes you can get away with making a mistake. Mistakes against world-famous darts players such as Rob Cross get hit a long way.
“The layout of the land they have is that they do it on a professional level every time they play. Here, we don’t have that,” Gates said. “We need to get that, because we have very high-caliber players.”
Michael van Gerwen, who is Hank Aaron to Phil Taylor’s Babe Ruth in world darts — earlier this year the Dutchman broke Taylor’s record by winning his 71st pro title — agreed following his 6-4 victory over hulking Darin Young of Pennsylvania.
“You have to make sure you’re focusing 100 percent, because they’re good enough to be on this stage,” said van Gerwyn, who was serenaded by partying darts fans with The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” his name being added in place of the bass beats.
“Oh, Michael van Ger-wyn. Oh, Michael van Ger-wyn …”
The chant rained down from the foot of the stage to the very back table in the ballroom, where a man in a newsboy cap consolidated two giant cans of Miller Lite by pouring most of the contents of the second into what remained in the first — without spilling a drop.
You could tell right away that he and big-time darts already had been introduced.