In any professional sport, a small group of events emerge as the ‘Majors’ or Grand Slam titles. Often in different environments, conditions or host nations.
The true greats of any sport, or era, collect multiples of these titles as if they were any other. Professional darts is no different.
The last decade has been remarkable for the game of darts. From a playing perspective, we have seen dominance and mastery of Phil Taylor, followed by the MVG era, with the emergence of many other talents, and characters, along the way. The game itself has gone from strength to strength with ever-increasing popularity, financial clout and now a truly global reach. The PDC, together with broadcasting companies have built upon a solid base of TV majors. By adding various non-ranking series and one-off events, held in different nations, in every timezone, they have ensured massive exposure. Despite the proliferation of events, most darts players (and fans) accept that there are five titles that currently carry that extra something that qualifies them as Majors.
The Big5 of the darts has The World Championships as its crown jewel. Held at the Alexandra Palace running from December of one year into the early days of the next. It uses a sets format and increases in match length over the rounds. However, the large and diverse field means early matches can be one-sided and draw sections can vary enormously in difficulty. Thus in many ways, the World Championships is a test of a players ability to adapt to the circumstances, retain consistency and improve through the two weeks.
The UK Open is second in the calendar, now held in February/March every year. It is open to a wider range of players and, like the FA Cup, each round is drawn after the previous one is completed. ‘The Open’ is therefore prone to drama and shocks and often produces great runs from lesser ranked and even amateur players. Rob Cross’s journey started with his qualification for this event via an amateur event in Norwich.
The World Matchplay, held in July at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, is, in many ways, the opposite of the UK Open. The Top 16 are joined by the top 16 on that year’s form. The Matchplay is pro darts in its purest form. No sets, no short format rounds and even a demand that a player wins by two clear legs. Only four players have won the Matchplay since 2008, all are World Champions and all significant players in darting history.
The fourth Big5 event of the year is held in Dublin, Ireland and has the unique feature of each leg starting on a double. The World Grand Prix is a fan favourite, perhaps due to its differences. The early stages have quite a short format and often produce shocks or near misses. Oddly, despite many shock results over the years, only Daryl Gurney in 2017 could be classed as a genuine surprise winner.
The Grand Slam of Darts provides the fifth of the biggest titles available to PDC players (and in this case others) each year. Again, a variation from the standard format is used. This time a group stage is included. Short format games, and even a nine-dart shoot-out, are used to whittle down the field from 48 to 16. After the group stage longer formats are introduced increasing in length until the final. The GSoD, therefore, has a non-knockout phase and two different formats in the same event. As a final twist is that a number of the players are from different systems or codes than the PDC. This introduces a whole host of different rivalries and variables. The GSoD’s traditional home, Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall, produces a loud and raucous atmosphere that adds an edge like no other venue.
These five events have been ever-present during darts latest glory age. Despite a few tweaks over the years (e.g. GSoD is now ranked) they remained essentially the same throughout and have developed their own unique histories and characters. Each is open to qualification by ranking as well as via other routes. Each carries enough prize money to make significant changes to the orders of merit. Each is desired by most, if not all, players for their career CV and each has its own chapter in the darting history books. Many new or up and coming players are happy to first qualify for all these events let alone win them!
Big5 Trophy Hunters
From the start of 2008 to the close of 2018 there have been fifty-five Big5 events. It is safe to say that two main bags of trophies have been collected. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor collected over 40% of the total with 23 titles. Second, in terms of total titles is MVG with 13 event wins. Gary Anderson has pocketed 4, with Adrian Lewis and James Wade claiming 3 apiece and the Robs, Cross and Thornton, have 2 each. The remaining 5 have fallen to John Part, Gerwyn Price, Daryl Gurney, Scott Waites and Raymond Van Barneveld. Shockingly RVB gained only the 2012 GSoD in the eleven years covered.
Career Big5 Slams.
To claim all of the Big5 is a serious achievement. Five different formats against the best of your era on any given day, week and year is remarkable. A clue lies in those who have not managed it. No Grand Slam for Dennis Priestley or Raymond Barneveld despite RVB’s peak years coming whilst all five were available to him. Gary Anderson is still missing both the WGP and Grand Slam titles whilst Adrian Lewis has only two of the five in his title bank. James Wade is the closest non-World Champion, having won three and reached the final of another.
MVG became a career winner of the Big 5 in during a phenomenal spell in 2015. He added three of the five in a single summer. The UK Open, World Matchplay and Grand Slam were added to his 2012 World Grand Prix and 2014 World Championship. Micheal has also claimed the Big5 ‘Season Slam’ Starting with the 2016 UK Open and concluding with the 2017 World Championships he claimed all five titles in succession within one rankings season. Strangely he has not yet claimed the ‘calendar year’ Big5.
The other of the Big5 bagmen has an even more impressive record when it comes to ‘Slams. Phil Taylor claimed all five of the Big5 events completed in 2009. In addition, he also won the last three completed in 2008 and the first three in 2010. Thus ‘The Power’ completed the ‘Season’ Slam and the ‘Calendar Year’ Slam between 2009 and 2010. He also produced a run of eleven consecutive Big5 wins. No one else has claimed both slams and no other player has won more than five in a row. Just to demonstrate that it was not a fluke, Taylor completed the ‘Calendar Slam’ again in 2013.
More in the Mix?
It is often claimed that the game has moved from one period of darting domination, under Taylor, to another, under MVG. Looking at the Big5 adds a bit of depth to that thought. In the four years between 2008 and 2011, inclusive, Taylor did indeed dominate, winning fourteen from twenty available titles. Yet, four different players won Big5 events and there were three different World Champions.
The four seasons between 2012 and 2015 divided the Big5 titles between six players, an increase of 33% and there were four different World Champions. Four players claimed more than one title and Taylor and MVG bagged the majority with eight and six respectively.
A little over three and half seasons have been completed between 2016 and 2019. But yet again there are four different World Champions. Eight players have already claimed a Big5 title (two more to play) with Anderson claiming three, despite a serious injury, and MVG on eight so far.
Big5 Glory Proving Tougher?
With the expansion of the global game, it may well be that players can no longer count on winning so many of the biggest TV titles. Already we see that the number of competitions played, and the clashing of tournaments, is leading to players missing certain events. This opens up the field to others. In turn, of course, this increases the other players’ confidence and experience, not to mention their bank balances. The introduction of the European Tour had a huge effect which is being magnified by the addition of other stage/screened events, be they regional, invitational or promotional.
We have many more hitting their very best at the same time and this may increase. Of the eight Big5 winners, from the last 4 seasons, seven are still playing and at least five could be considered to be in their prime. Hunting the Big5 looks likely to get tougher and tougher. But professional darts appear to be in a very strong place going forward. The variety of player styles, ages and personalities claiming Big5 titles is growing and will spawn.
Perhaps the question that will run for the longest is;
“Will MVG match or surpass Phil Taylor’s total of 52 Big5 trophies?”
Micheal is currently on 13 Big5 titles but is more than twenty years younger than when Phil claimed his final title……………