Conversation overheard in the gallery during the first round of the eighth annual U.S. Open Darts Championship:
A stranger: Who are you rooting for in this match?
My friend: Mark Donovan. How about you?
Stranger: I'm for Donovan, too.
Friend: How come?
Stranger: I hear he throws good darts.
I didn't even pay the guy to say that. Either he was confusing me with someone else, was sadly misinformed or had a strange definition of good darts. Whatever his problem, mine was painfully clear—here I was playing in the national championship, the U.S. Open. Granted, the Grand Ballroom of New York's Commodore Hotel is not exactly Forest Hills or Pebble Beach, but a U.S. Open is a U.S. Open.
My qualifications were suspect, to say the least. I had been playing darts for slightly less than a year. My apartment features a well-worn Winmau bristle board that has received some good, bad and, mostly, indifferent darts. Most evenings I can be found in the neighborhood dart pub supplying the other patrons with beer. Yes, I had thrown a dart or two. But the U.S. Open? It was rather like tossing an 18-handicapper in with Nicklaus, Miller & Co.
But spurred on by an unfounded feeling that I might do passably well, I appeared at the Commodore with my partner Sten. Sten and I were appropriately decked out in nicely clashing vests, and we carried our darts in a tidy little pack. We spoke knowledgeably of "mugs away," "bed and breakfast" and "three in a bed." It was all a lot of hot air.
The scene that greeted us in the Grand Ballroom was impressive. Almost 1,000 people were milling about. Darters are a lively lot, and beer and whiskey were selling briskly at 10:30 in the morning. As in bowling leagues, the backs of shirts proudly proclaimed the wearer's allegiance: JOE T'S ORIGINALS, MOTHER'S RINGERS, THE IMMORTALS, THE CROOKED DART STRAIGHT SHOOTERS. There was an endless variety of darts, ranging from expensive tungstens to poor man's brass.
Since I had attended the previous year's Open, I recognized most of the notables. Conrad Daniels, the defending champ, stood throwing his tiny basement-sized darts; Bob Thiede, the 1971 champion, was there, attempting a comeback after a near-fatal car accident. So was the infamous Tex, his black cowboy hat at a rakish angle and his dart pouches hanging at his hips like holsters. Tex wore his string tie, charmed the press and kissed all the ladies. Some things never change. I ran into Joe, a regular at my neighborhood pub. One evening Joe was so displeased with a toss that he decided to vent his anger on the board. He attacked that Winmau with such vigor that he broke his throwing arm. The next night Joe was back, his darts tucked in his sling, throwing with his other hand.
What were Sten and I doing in this congregation of 634 dedicated dartsmen? Sure we had paid our entry fees ($15 each for singles, $20 for doubles), but that was about it. Shouldn't we have had to pass some sort of dart proficiency test? Apparently not, since we were soon called to Board 17 for our first match. I had to be revived with smelling salts when I spied our opponents, Joe Baltadonis, 1972 national champion, and Nicky Virachkul, last year's runner-up in the Open. "That's like entering an archery contest against Robin Hood," said a friend. Indeed, Virachkul wore a black velvet vest with the words ROBIN HOODS—the name of one of New York's best teams—stenciled on the back.
Suddenly I was nervous. The butterflies I remembered from college squash matches returned, and it was impossible to keep my hand steady. It wasn't a lark anymore. This was serious stuff; we were up against the best, and we were about to make fools of ourselves.
We lost the toss, and it was downhill from there. The match was two out of three games, and it lasted just 11½ minutes. We were bad, but not pitiful; they were good, but not great. In the second game Virachkul needed two bull's-eyes—which he made—on one turn to wrap it up, and as he stepped up to the line I noticed that Baltadonis was putting his darts away. That's what I call confidence.
I was brooding over our loss in the bar when news reached me of my first-round draw in the singles. As I buried my head in my arms, a casual observer might have assumed I lacked a winning attitude. But one of my supporters was there to reassure me. "Well, there's always next year," he said. A few well-placed words of encouragement were all I needed. Actually I may have been overreacting. Although an able and respected darter, my opponent was not a former champion or anything like that.
The standard match in the Open is two out of three games of 501, straight start, double finish. Each player begins with 501 points and works his way backward toward zero. In order to win, a player must finish exactly at zero and do it by placing a dart in the double band that rings the board. For example, with 32 remaining, one needs a double 16. If one misses and throws an 8, leaving 24, then a double 12 is required. And so on.
I skillfully lost the toss, allowing my opponent to go first. He went out to a quick lead, but I threw a 123 (treble 20, treble 1, treble 20) to close the gap. He came right back at me with a 121 and went out on the next turn. Darted again! The game had lasted four minutes.
Game 2 was close, and my darts improved as my confidence grew. On the seventh turn I threw "a ton" (100 points) to take the lead. My opponent countered with a "buck 40" (140 points), but I was given a reprieve when he surprisingly was unable to go out from double 20. From 76, a double 20 got me down to 36. I needed a double 18, but my attempt drifted into a 4, and I was left with 32. The longer I stared at that sliver of green indicating double 16, the smaller it got, so I just fired away. That final dart looked mighty true, but it hit on the wrong side of the wire, millimeters from victory. "Tough dart," muttered Sten. My opponent went out on his next turn, and it was a veritable dart in my heart, an arrow in my marrow.
That ended my quest for the $2,000 first prize and the trip to England for the world championship. That honor went to Tony Money from Cleveland, and he deserved it. After all, he beat the guy who beat the guy, etc. who beat me.
Now where's that stranger who said I threw good darts? Maybe he'd like to play for a beer.