ROB CROSS makes his first appearance as World Champion on Friday night as the 2018 Unibet Masters begins at Arena MK in Milton Keynes, where Michael van Gerwen is aiming to claim a fourth successive title.
Shooting star Cross has enjoyed an incredible rise since joining the professional circuit a year ago, capping his emergence by picking up the World Championship title on New Year's Day.
Now the world number three, Cross is one of four Masters debutants this weekend as he takes on Ian White in their first round tie on Friday night. live on ITV4.
"It's really exciting," said Cross, the 4/1 second favourite with sponsors Unibet. "The past year has been full of new experiences for me and this will be another one.
"It was a goal of mine to get into the Masters anyway because it's the top 16 in the world and it means a lot to be in that bracket, but to be here as World Champion is amazing for me.
"The reaction since the World Championship has been unbelievable and it's been a busy time but I've been putting in the practice still and it will be nice to get back to playing."
Number two seed Peter Wright is aiming to start 2018 in a winning fashion in Milton Keynes as he prepares to face Alan Norris on Friday.
The Scot won his first TV title at the 2017 UK Open amongst 11 tournament wins in his best year on the circuit, only to see a bout of gallstones derail his World Championship challenge.
"My health is fine at the moment," he said. "The doctors are happy with my diet and I'm not having pains at the moment so I'm trying to keep on doing what I'm doing now.
"Hopefully I'll be okay and not need an operation in the future. I've been practising a lot better than I could before the World Championship and putting a lot more time in on the board, and I'm up for it.
"I've been looking at changing a few things and I've found a set-up which I think I can be successful with this year.
"My target is to win 20-plus tournaments this year and I want to be number one in the world. There's no point in resting on my laurels, I'm going to chase Michael van Gerwen."
Friday's other ties see former Masters finalists Dave Chisnall and Raymond van Barneveld clash, while 2017 Champions League of Darts winner Mensur Suljovic meets Michael Smith.
Reigning champion Van Gerwen begins his bid to win a fourth successive title on Saturday night as the first round concludes with the remaining four matches.
The world number one is unbeaten on stage at Arena MK since the tournament's move to Milton Keynes in 2015, and the odds-on pre-tournament favourite takes on Kim Huybrechts to begin his challenge in this year's event.
"It would be wonderful to win this tournament again, but I can't look that far ahead yet," said Van Gerwen, the 8/11 pre-tournament favourite with Unibet.
"It's a fantastic tournament and it's important for every player because we all want to start the year well and this is the first one.
"I've had a break and I'm feeling good, and I'm looking forward to playing again. I think I'm still in good form and I showed that in the World Championship, but I've got to make sure I prepare for every game."
2017 runner-up Gary Anderson will be aiming to erase the memory of last year's loss to Van Gerwen in the final when he takes on Benito van de Pas in their opener.
The Scot, however, saw his World Championship challenge hampered by a back injury and has been having treatment recently in a bid to return to full fitness.
"It's a lot better," said Anderson. "I've been going for the last four weeks but he reckons it will be another couple of months before I'm 100 percent.
"This weekend will be a tester to see how things are going. It's a new year and I'm looking forward playing again."
2014 Masters champion James Wade opens Saturday evening's action as he plays Australian Simon Whitlock, while debutants Daryl Gurney and Gerwyn Price face off.
The £200,000 tournament concludes on Sunday, with the quarter-finals in the afternoon session being followed by the semi-finals and final in the evening session.
A limited number of tickets for the Unibet Masters are still available, either online via pdc.seetickets.com, from the Stadium MK Box Office or by calling 0333 200 5343.
2018 Unibet Masters
(1) Michael van Gerwen v (16) Kim Huybrechts
(8) Simon Whitlock v (9) James Wade
(5) Daryl Gurney v (12) Gerwyn Price
(4) Gary Anderson v (13) Benito van de Pas
(2) Peter Wright v (15) Alan Norris
(7) Dave Chisnall v (10) Raymond van Barneveld
(6) Mensur Suljovic v (11) Michael Smith
(3) Rob Cross v (14) Ian White
Schedule of Play
Friday January 26 (7pm)
First Round x4
Dave Chisnall v Raymond van Barneveld
Mensur Suljovic v Michael Smith
Rob Cross v Ian White
Peter Wright v Alan Norris
Saturday January 27 (7pm)
First Round x4
Simon Whitlock v James Wade
Daryl Gurney v Gerwyn Price
Gary Anderson v Benito van de Pas
Michael van Gerwen v Kim Huybrechts
Sunday January 28
Afternoon Session (12.45pm)
Peter Wright/Alan Norris v Dave Chisnall/Raymond van Barneveld
Mensur Suljovic/Michael Smith v Rob Cross/Ian White
Daryl Gurney/Gerwyn Price v Gary Anderson/Benito van de Pas
Michael van Gerwen/Kim Huybrechts v Simon Whitlock/James Wade
Evening Session (7pm)
First Round - Best of 19 legs
Quarter-Finals - Best of 19 legs
Semi-Finals - Best of 21 legs
Final - Best of 21 legs
First Round Losers £5,000