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 11� 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.