The margins between success and failure within any sport are extremely slender, although in darts these margins can be defined by the width of a wire – the difference between achieving your destiny or being condemned to heartbreak.
That sentiment is perfectly illustrated during PDC Qualifying School – a four-day event which encompasses a wide-ranging demographic of darting dreamers. Some are embarking on their first competitive outings, whilst other established stars are typically bidding to salvage their careers.
For the game’s growing talents it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. For the more seasoned veterans it’s another venture into the last-chance saloon, often dictated by desperation rather than desire. Nevertheless, the ambitions remain the same – securing a coveted two-year Tour Card.
Over 850 players made the trip to Wigan or Hildesheim for the respective Qualifying Schools last week – a record field featuring a host of major winners and former world champions. There were also 16 female participants in attendance, fresh from Fallon Sherrock’s Ally Pally exploits.
The uncertainty engulfing the British Darts Organisation undoubtedly played a significant role in the record list of entries – 29 of the 40 men who featured in the BDO World Championship were aiming to cross the darting divide – eventual champion Wayne Warren the solitary top eight absentee.
Three-time world champion John Part was among the list of decorated stars bidding to regain his place on the Pro Tour, along with 1995 BDO world champion Richie Burnett and former PDC world finalists Andy Hamilton, Kevin Painter, Mark Dudbridge and Peter Manley.
Former Players Championship Finals winner Paul Nicholson was also aiming to return to the big-time after a 12-month absence, where he was joined by two-time Premier League participant Wes Newton and seven-time ranking winner Jamie Caven.
As is customary at Qualifying School, a number of remarkable stories emerged, with 31 players walking away with a guaranteed berth on the PDC circuit until the latter stages of 2021. However, the biggest story was the success of four-time women’s world champion Lisa Ashton.
‘The Lancashire Rose’ has been the flag-bearer for women’s darts for much of the last decade and having narrowly missed out on qualification last year, the 49-year-old made history on this occasion, becoming the first woman to capture a Tour Card via Qualifying School.
Andy Hamilton was one of the leading stars within the PDC between 2012-2015, but a sudden decline saw him relinquish his status on the circuit and following a tumultuous period which led to him rebuilding his career in the BDO system, ‘The Hammer’ confirmed his return in Wigan on Sunday.
Two-time BDO world champion Scott Waites will compete as a PDC professional for the first time in 2020, along with former BDO No 1 Wesley Harms, Welsh Open winner Martijn Kleermaker and eight-time ranking event winner Nicky Kenny, as the BDO ranks are further depleted.
Then there was also a fair share of romanticism. 36-year-old pub player Aaron Beeney – a prison officer who scooped just £150 in prize money on the Challenge Tour in 2019 emerged from from the abyss to secure his place among the darting elite.
This year’s four-day bonanza was brimming with compelling narratives but amongst the euphoria was a substantial amount of agony and disappointment, with a host of players just a matter of legs away from accomplishing their dream.
The veteran Steve Hine needed to defeat Adam Hunt to mark his return to the PDC scene at the expense of Ashton, although ‘The Muffin Man’ surrendered a 4-1 buffer and missed out on a Tour Card by the solitary leg.
Two-time major finalist Newton also came within touching distance of a return – his 5-0 defeat against Matthew Dennant on Sunday denied him another chance at glory – even two legs in that particular clash would have been sufficient for ‘The Warrior’.
Tony Newell and Stephen Burton were among the players to miss out despite being tied on nine points along with Ashton, whilst young Hertfordshire ace Jarred Cole was left to rue missed match darts for an automatic Tour Card on Day Three.
There were a multitude of big names who missed the cut, which was inevitable given the incredible strength in depth on show across the respective Qualifying Schools.
One of those to miss out was former major winner Nicholson. ‘The Asset’ is renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve and he gave it everything in a bid to return to the Pro Tour, only to miss out by just two points following a series of unfortunate 5-4 defeats.
Nevertheless, the ruthless reality of the professional sport is typified by the story of Alan Norris. ‘Chuck’ was an established figure within the world’s top 16 two years ago, but his form understandably dwindled after his wife Kara tragically passed away last January following a battle with cancer.
The resilience and character Norris displayed was admirable during this period of immense suffering, although results dictated that he surrendered his top 64 spot and although the entire darting community were willing the former BDO world finalist to regain his card, it did not materialise.
Those who have competed in Qualifying School maintain that it’s arguably the most gruelling process you can experience within the sport, an assertion that will surely be reaffirmed by the leading BDO stars that toiled in Wigan and Hildesheim.
2015 world champion Scott Mitchell and this year’s finalist Jim Williams boasted two of the top ten averages across the four days, although this didn’t translate to tangible success. Dave Parletti – seeded fourth at the Indigo O2 last week, also struggled to make an impression.
It was a slightly easier pill to swallow for the trio of Part, Painter and Burnett. They were always facing an unenviable task to roll back the years, although the points disparity between them and the eventual qualifiers further evidences the changing of the guard taking place within the sport.
Then there were the 16 female representatives. Ashton stole the headlines with her ground-breaking success, yet much of the pre-tournament coverage was dominated by ‘Queen of The Palace’ Fallon Sherrock, who registered two points across the four days of action.
Sherrock impressed in reaching round-four on the opening day, featuring a notable 5-4 success against Nicholson. The 25-year-old performed well for much of the event but the notion of Q-School being a ‘lottery’ was exemplified as she bowed out twice with averages in excess of 90.
Reigning women’s world champion Mikuru Suzuki, who came desperately close to winning at the PDC World Championship herself last month, also performed better than her results indicated. The Japanese star was handed a series of difficult draws throughout, picking up the sole win on Day One.
16-year-old Beau Greaves couldn’t have asked for tougher examinations in the three events she competed in. She was handed a first round clash with Brisbane Darts Masters winner Damon Heta on the opening two days, with 2005 world finalist Mark Dudbridge her Day Three opponent.
Qualifying School is a unique phenomenon. For example, Wesley Harms was dumped out in the early stages in one of the European Q-School events despite averaging 105, whilst other players progressed with averages below 60. It’s fair to say the fluctuating standard caused considerable conjecture.
The lowest average of the entire four-day event was a lowly 32.70. Damon Heta boasted the highest – his 113.20 average fired in against Jeff Smith. That illustrates the gulf in class between large proportions of the field, which explains why it’s so unpredictable and draw dependant.
Seigo Asada led Japan to a World Cup of Darts semi-final earlier in the summer. ‘The Ninja’ was one of the bookmakers favourites to clinch an automatic card and despite reaching the latter stages of Saturday’s event, Asada’s ambitions were curtailed in surprisingly premature fashion.
Q-School is the acid test, but it’s not a definitive indication of a player’s ability. Glen Durrant is the obvious example. The three-time BDO world champion only just sneaked a Tour Card 12 months ago via the Q-School Order of Merit, yet his pedigree was beyond reproach.
He silenced any lingering doubters immediately by reaching the final in his second Pro Tour event and after winning two ranking titles coupled with reaching three major televised semi-finals, ‘Duzza’ will deservedly be a permanent fixture in this year’s Premier League.
Nevertheless, whilst the cream rose to the top with several proven winners confirming their status as PDC professionals for the next two years, this year’s Qualifying School provided further illustration that reputations count for nothing in the modern game.
The changing of the guard within the sport has been fast-tracked with the departures of Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld, and the conveyor belt of talent coming through are not fazed by the prospect of facing such big names. In fact, they relish the opportunity to claim a notable scalp.
For those more seasoned, there is greater scrutiny and jeopardy- the consequences of defeat can be far more damaging. That’s the harsh reality of sport and a massive factor as to why Qualifying School has increasingly become one of the most anticipated tournaments on the darting calendar.
Photo Credit: Lawrence Lustig/PDC