It was Barry Hearn’s latest darting masterstroke. A week long tournament on terrestrial television featuring all the best players in the world. Organised by the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), but with a number of top players invited from the rival British Darts Organisation (BDO). A November date was fixed, with a £4,000 carrot for any player who turned up. Darts unified and on ITV, a fans’ twenty year dream realised.
Soon after the dates for the Grand Slam were confirmed, however, it was announced that the Winmau World Masters – the second biggest tournament in the BDO calendar – was moving from its’ habitual October date to, oh yes, clash with the opening weekend of the PDC tournament. Any BDO player invited to the Grand Slam would a choice to make: Wolverhampton or Bridlington, BBC or ITV.
Darts had not been seen on terrestrial television since January, but suddenly everyone was at it. The tournaments landed simultaneously on our screens on the afternoon of November 17, with only the most skilled remote user able to keep track of every dart thrown. And the existence of another tournament 150 miles away was denied with David Irving-esque idiocy.
Adams took some stick for committing to play in the rescheduled event on the BBC, and not just from Hearn who said he felt sorry for ‘Wolfie’ for his decision. Didn’t he want to prove himself a truly world class player? Was he fearful of not being competitive? The England captain was in an unenviable position – and one in which the body to which he remains so loyal should never have put him.
Wolfie’s only chance to stick two fingers up at Hearn was to win the £25,000 on offer for the World Masters – the perfect way to illustrate that the Slam had been devalued without him. But he didn’t, dumped in his second match by the eventual winner, with a three-dart average which would have probably seen him lose in the last sixteen at the Grand Slam.
That, as it happened, was further than five of the six participating BDO players progressed in the ITV tournament. The excessive noise and razzmatazz of the X-Factor infected tournament must have been a shock to those more accustomed to a Strictly Come Dancing feel to competitive darts. Mark Webster and Sean Greatbach can count themselves a little unlucky not to progress, but there was no surprise that Gary Anderson – winner of two Dutch tournaments earlier in the year containing players from both codes – took his place in the knockout stages.
Wolfie was right in one respect – the Grand Slam was not what the public were expecting. It was much better than that. ITV’s return to darts coverage took a little while to warm up, but, with Eric Bristow and Keith Deller belatedly recruited as ‘spotters’ to help the bewildered camera operators, things were ship-shape in Wolverhampton by the time the knockout stage was underway. Surprise victories for Terry Jenkins, Andy Hamilton and Kevin McDine over world champion Van Barneveld, major-winner in waiting Adrian Lewis, and the winner of the last two televised tournaments James Wade, set the top half of the draw on fire. The bottom half progressed inexorably to a Phil Taylor versus Anderson semi-final – and it didn’t disappoint, with the in-form BDO player once again proving himself able to hold his own on a stage with ‘The Power’. Anderson was just a wire away from levelling the match up late in the game, and would have then had the advantage of throwing first to come. Taylor prevailed, however, and more predictably he repeated the feat in a high quality final, in which both he and his opponent Andy Hamilton averaged over 100 with every three darts thrown.
A week before over two million people watched Phil Taylor land that winning double top on ITV1, well over one million had tuned in to BBC2 for the conclusion of the thirty-fourth World Masters.
The BDO had made every attempt to ruin the event. Having allowed the change of date, thereby losing six top players to the Grand Slam (including their current top three), the format of previous years was then changed so that the top eight seeds were catapulted directly into the last sixteen. This may have worked well for the lucky eight – who were guaranteed £500 for losing their first game, and £1,250 with just one victory – and especially for the BBC, who were guaranteed better-known names in the televised stages, but it angered other players and BDO counties. It also denigrated the history of this fabulous tournament – just four victories could be enough for one of the chosen eight to claim a world title, whilst nearly 200 other participants spent Friday 16th November battling their way through qualifying rounds for the privilege of a TV slot.
Despite these efforts, the tournament was rescued by the brilliance of John ‘Boy’ Walton’s nine-darter to seal victory in his opening game, and three fantastic performances by Darryl Fitton in reaching his first major final. The tournament was only a success, however, because of a well-deserved victory for the little known Scot Robert Thornton, whose eight wins give him the right to truly call himself a world master.
Laundry. Now that is a dirty word. Thankfully darts’ attempts once again to air its’ dirty laundry in public was lost in the throws of their star performers. McDine, Anderson, Hamilton, Walton, Fitton, and particularly Phil Taylor and Robert Thornton helped to wash away any crap.