What a difference 12 months can make. Cast your mind back to this time last year and we were dissecting Gary Anderson getting his hands on the UK Open crown for the first time.
The 2018 UK Open was, though, rather unfortunately remembered for what transpired away from the oche. Extreme weather conditions, caused by Storm Emma, led to the decision being made to play the tournament behind closed doors.
Playing the event with virtually no spectators detracted heavily from one of the most unique and popular events on the calendar. Affectionately known as ‘The FA Cup of Darts’, the UK Open always provides plenty of excitement, but without a crowd it just felt like a glorified Players Championship event.
This past weekend, the weather was on side and the crowd was back, and it felt like the UK Open, in its 17th staging, had its mojo back. Right from the get go, on Friday afternoon, there was drama.
Most of it, admittedly, came on the outside boards in that opening session. From players refusing to shake hands to Cameron Menzies being timed out from his second-round game after turning up to the wrong part of the venue. Back on the main stage we also had Kirk Shepherd’s now infamous dance off with Dimitri van den Bergh – a clip which has racked up more than 300,000 views on Twitter.
To Friday evening, and the introduction of the big boys. This year’s UK Open saw several changes to the format. The UK Open Qualifiers for the tour card holders were thrown out, and instead all 128 players (minus last year’s runner-up Corey Cadby) were all in the field.
But just as soon as some of the world’s best players entered the fray, they were soon heading home. World number one Michael van Gerwen was dumped out by Mervyn King, Gary Anderson, the defending champion back for his first appearance of the season, departed at the hands of Steve Beaton, and 2017 champion Peter Wright was edged out by Mensur Suljovic.
On Saturday, more big names were sent packing. Daryl Gurney, the last winner at Minehead in the Players Championship Finals, late last year, was pipped in a last-leg decider by Michael Smith. Suljovic also lost in a 19-leg thriller to van den Bergh, while former winner James Wade bowed out to Ross Smith in the last 16.
Sunday. Finals Day. The winner appeared most likely to come from one of three remaining Premier League players left standing: Michael Smith, Gerwyn Price or Rob Cross. All three negotiated their way through to the semi-finals, but it was the other man joining them for the final session, Nathan Aspinall, who would walk away with the trophy.
Aspinall, a World Championship semi-finalist only a few short months ago, defied his pre-tournament odds, which were in three figures, to scoop the £100,000 prize and his first major title. It was a magical moment.
It can be easy to forget sometimes just what winning these major titles can mean. The Phil Taylor era, quickly followed by the Michael van Gerwen era, has meant at times we often see a familiar face lifting the trophy. So to see Aspinall, who was outside the top 32 before the start of the tournament and is now in the elite top 16, and his family and friends, celebrating on Sunday night was a joy to behold. And to win it with a 170 checkout, following in the footsteps of Ted Hankey and Colin Lloyd, will not be forgotten in a long time.
Some might say the UK Open held a higher stature within the PDC years ago, when there were fewer tournaments shown on TV. But after three days of shocks, surprises and some awful dance moves, in Minehead, the UK Open is clearly a tournament which is still fondly thought of.