The UK Open takes place this weekend and our darts expert Chris Hammer brings you his best bets for the opening ranking major of the season, televised on ITV4.
The open draw format of the FA Cup of Darts is as much an opportunity to find a big price winner as it is a pitfall to scupper it.
Two years ago, three of my five tips somehow dodged the biggest names and avoided each other en route to the semi-finals before 125/1 selection Nathan Aspinall took out the other two – Gerwyn Price and Rob Cross – to bolster our profits in the days when three-figure priced darts champions were a lot rarer than they’ve become.
Twelve months later, less said the better as they were all gone by the fifth round, including Glen Durrant who was handed an opening clash with the then world champion Peter Wright.
There’s been many surprise finalists down the years that few would have predicted thanks largely to the format but that’s not to say you need the luck of the draw. Just ask Michael van Gerwen, who had to get past Nathan Aspinall, James Wade, Rob Cross and Daryl Gurney before edging out Gerwyn Price 11-9 in an epic final. He averaged 110 on three occasions and also hit a nine-darter against Gurney while the only time he dropped below 100 came during arguably his biggest struggle against the unheralded Jason Lowe, who threw first in a deciding leg.
The tough draws can therefore help the very best players raise their game although they’d all be lying if they said they’d prefer a route like MVG’s – or indeed Robert Thornton’s famously tough one in 2012 when he’d eventually upset the odds to stun Phil Taylor in the final.
Even if this was a traditional draw bracket tournament, the chances of the big-priced outsiders seem greater than ever due to the rising standards across the board and the behind closed doors environment which has undeniably helped level the playing field of the past 12 months.
Dimitri van den Bergh, Jose de Sousa and Jonny Clayton have all won majors since last summer at huge pre-tournament odds while Mervyn King (twice) and Dirk van Duijvenbode have been surprise runners-up in that same period.
Ultimately, the key criteria for picking a potential winner of this tournament has to include most of the following; current form, behind closed doors major form, fearlessness to take on anyone at any time and crucially someone who has the mental stamina and consistency to come through six long matches in a weekend, including three on the final day.
Experience of the big Butlin’s crowd and the FA Cup of Darts vibe isn’t obviously relevant this year considering its being staged all in one room at Milton Keynes.
Apart from the ‘big three’, the first name on everyone’s lips is JONNY CLAYTON at 12/1.
On one hand it doesn’t seem a value price purely because he was 150/1 to win the Masters last month... and 28/1 just to win his quarter of the draw.
But if you get past that feeling of missing the boat, few can deny he’s playing consistently superior to anyone at the moment as he enjoys the best purple patch of his career by a long way.
The Ferret, who averaged 102.66 overall in the Masters with nerves of steel victories over De Sousa (6-5), van Gerwen (10-9), James Wade (10-9) Peter Wright (11-10) and King (11-8), maintained his momentum at last week’s Super Series where he topped the Order of Merit thanks to winning the fourth title having previously been runner-up on the first two days.
His average of 98.73 was highest apart from the anomaly of Joe Murnan, who lost four of his five matches with impressive stats, but the most impressive part of Clayton’s campaign for me was the fact he showed tremendous character after losing deciding legs to Joe Cullen and Callan Rydz in back-to-back finals.
It looked as though his third final against Damon Heta was going to the wire but he held it together to take it 8-6 and end the week in supreme confidence heading into the UK Open, where he hit a nine-darter 12 months ago on route to the semi-finals only to be defeated by Gerwyn Price.
His World Cup-winning partner didn’t quite do enough to see off MVG in a thriller later that same night but he bounced back in some style – albeit after a long pandemic-enforced break – by winning four TV titles, including the biggest of the lot, to replace the Dutchman at the summit of the rankings.
Price looked as though it was going to get off to a flying start when posting stunning 105 averages in the opening two rounds of the Masters only to be pipped by a resurgent Mervyn King 11-10 in the semis with an average of 99.
At the Super Series he was strangely out of sorts as he lost two of his four matches in the opening two days, including a remarkably unexpected 6-5 humbling at the hands of prison officer Aaron Beeney, who managed just four victories in his 32 matches in 2020.
However, Price then pulled out of the rest of the event citing an ear injection and although the world champion has been on the antibiotics and recovering quickly, he admits he’s not yet feeling 100%.
If he can get past his opening test on Friday night – whoever that may be against – then another night of rest should do the world of good and make his current odds of 6/1 look quite an overreaction.
Van Gerwen is the favourite at a general 9/2 and while he looked more like himself on the final day of the Super Series by averaging over 100 in four of his six matches before losing to Damon Heta, he still remains as beatable in the eyes of his peers than ever.
JOE CULLEN is another player who ticks most of the aforementioned boxes – so much so that his best pre-tournament price of 16/1 is by far the shortest he’s ever been to win a televised major.
The Rockstar triumphed on day one of the Super Series with a hard-fought 8-7 triumph over his good pal Clayton and he really should have had another when losing out in Raymond van Barneveld’s ‘fairytale’ return.
He missed seven darts at a double to force a decider in a match that he’d also let a 3-1 lead slip away but I’m sure the overriding feeling from the week will be one of great satisfaction.
Regular readers of my previews will have noticed I’ve put him up at various points over the past 18 months – including the recent Masters when he was 50/1 – due to his undoubted potential and the clear signs that his belief to deliver on the biggest stages are growing.
His best ever run at the World Championship would have been even longer had ‘that’ dart at the bullseye found its target against MVG and if he can continue in this vein then I believe this really is the year when he becomes a major winner.
Pity he hasn't managed it when under the radar at a massive price but I’ll settle for 16/1 each-way, with most bookies paying ¼ odds if your player reaches at least the semi-finals.
There’s a whole heap of credible contenders and usual suspects between Cullen in the betting and the world number four Rob Cross at a whopping 66/1 and you could make a solid case for all of them.
But two I’m angling towards are DIRK VAN DUIJVENBODE and DAMON HETA, who are available at 33/1 and 40/1 respectively.
Starting with the popular Aubergine farmer, he comfortably proved his run to last year’s World Grand Prix final was far from a flash in the pan by reaching the quarters of both the European Championship and Players Championship Finals before repeating the trick at the World Championship.
It’s quite ironic that he timed his rapid ascent up the rankings during a time when there were no fans to enjoy his legendary pumped-up walk-ons but perhaps this atmosphere and environment has helped him focus like never before.
As much as he sparked hilarity by carrying an aubergine onto the stage for his first match at the Ally Pally, his subsequent scare against Bradley Brooks meant he ditched the gimmick for his following wins. He claimed he doesn’t want to “over-do” it and as trivial as it might sound, it shows he has a new air of seriousness about his ambitions.
During the Super Series he was hitting 180s at a more prolific rate than anyone else while his average of 98.68 was third best behind Murnan and Clayton, so he’s clearly in a good place with his game.
His best run came on the final day and it was Heta who brought it to a halt in the quarter-finals.
The Heat was among the top eight performing players based on averages during the Super Series last week as he impressively picked up where he left off from his impressive debut season on the PDC circuit.
The 2019 Brisbane Darts Masters champ, who won a maiden Pro Tour title last Autumn, nearly made it two by reaching Sunday’s final following tremendous victories over Peter Wright and Michael van Gerwen with 100+ averages in both – as well as beating van Duijvenbode, Mervyn King, Raymond van Barneveld and Ricky Evans.
Heta almost pushed Clayton to a deciding leg in a keenly-fought contest before losing 8-6 and he’s got a great chance of reaching the semi-finals of a PDC major for the first time having reached the quarters of both the Grand Slam of Darts and Players Championship Finals last season.
The disappointment of that agonising opening-round defeat to Danny Baggish at the World Championship should hopefully now be a distant memory - although the progress the American made after that makes that look a lot less of a shock than it did at the time. Incidentally he’s 400/1 for glory.
Heta will have to play one more game than the other big names if he’s to win the title considering he’s not yet ranked in the top 32 so he’ll open up against either Steffen Siepmann or David Evans in round three on Friday afternoon.
My final – and highly speculative – outright selection has to start in round two but ALAN SOUTAR’s odds of 200/1 are reeling me in for a tournament like this.
In the last behind closed doors UK Open back in 2018, David Pallett and Robert Owen both made the semi-finals at massive prices, with the latter entering as early as the second round, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that another rank outsider can hustle their way through this field.
The 43-year-old Scottish fireman may well be brand new to the PDC circuit following his pretty comfortable Q School campaign at the first attempt but has bags of experience in amateur darts and represented his country 50 times.
He didn’t attempt Q School in previous years due to his job and his big involvement in the running of the amateur scene in Scotland – as well as his own academy – so it would be naïve to assume it was down to his quality. After all, the PDC isn’t for everyone, no matter how talented, and now he’s decided the time is right for him.
And what a great start he made too. His Super Series average of 96.05 ranked him 20th overall and his highest was a pair of 105s in successive wins against Peter Wright and Peter Hudson on day two.
He also took care of Adrian Lewis, Dave Chisnall and Nathan Aspinall among his nine wins over the four days while three of the four players who beat him – Clayton, Callan Rydz and van Barneveld – all went on to reach the final of those respective events. Mervyn King was the fourth to beat him but most would have lost to a player averaging 106.
I’ve spoken to Sporting Life columnist Paul Nicholson at great lengths about Alan’s capabilities and he even told readers to look out for him at Q School and beyond last month.
True to the Asset’s words, he’s already making people sit up and take notice but he couldn’t have got a much tougher opening tie than Barney.
Although the Dutch legend did beat him the other day and out earned him over the week £11,000 to £4,775, you’ve got to bare in mind a huge chuck of that came from a £10,000 winners’ cheque. Soutar played 13 matches compared with Barney’s 12 so there’s not much between them.
Experience of televised darts obviously goes in Barney’s favour and he is clearly in a better mental place than he was during his woeful retirement season, but I’m willing to take a chance.
Soutar reaching the semis is a huge ask so I’m going to throw him into an opening afternoon treble along with ROSS SMITH and STEVE WEST at around 12/1.
Smith is the 6/5 outsider against Callan Rydz, who thrashed him 6-0 en route to his maiden title last week, but too much weight may have been put on their contrasting weeks. It wasn’t a true reflection of the 2019 UK Open quarter-finalist’s talents and in such a short format match, the form guides go out of the window somewhat.
West had a horrible week but so did his opponent Jason Lowe and shouldn’t be seen as such a big underdog at 11/8. Last year’s European Championship quarter-finalist loves this format having reached the 2018 quarters and the fifth round in each of the last two seasons so this is an ideal tournament to bounce back.
The Ladbrokes UK Open will be broadcast live on ITV4 for UK viewers, through the PDC's international broadcast partners and through PDCTV for Rest of the World Subscribers.
ITV4 will be on air for all three afternoon sessions (from 1200 GMT) and all three evening sessions (1900 GMT) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Stage Two action on Friday and Saturday will be streamed exclusively for all PDCTV Subscribers worldwide.