Australia’s former World Cup winners Simon Whitlock and Damon Heta delighted their home crowd with memorable victories on the opening night of the PalmerBet New South Wales Darts Masters in Wollongong.
Whitlock edged out World Matchplay champion Nathan Aspinall in a deciding-leg thriller, while Heta produced the performance of Friday’s first round to demolish compatriot Joe Comito.
It was veteran star Whitlock stole the show at the WIN Entertainment Centre, defying a spirited fightback from Aspinall to become the solitary Oceanic representative to progress to Saturday’s Finals Day.
There was nothing to separate the pair after four legs, but Whitlock stole a march midway through proceedings, landing four 180s inside three legs to establish a commanding 5-2 advantage.
The partisan home crowd appeared poised to roar Whitlock on to an emphatic victory, but a tenacious Aspinall rallied, following up 84 and 80 skin-savers with a 14-dart hold to force a last-leg shoot-out.
The pair then exchanged maximums in a dramatic finale, which saw both players miss match darts before Whitlock keep his cool, pinning double four to cap off a famous win.
“Nathan is class - he’s just won the World Matchplay, so this is massive for me,” admitted Whitlock, who averaged 99 and registered six 180s to prevail on an emotional night.
“I played well and I probably could have won it easier than that, but Nathan never gives up, and he could have won have the match. I think the crowd helped me there!
“It was awesome having my Mum in the crowd again. I ran down and gave her a kiss and a cuddle [after the match]. It’s so special.”
Despite Whitlock’s heroics, Australian number one Heta was Friday’s stand-out performer, averaging over 106 to demolish Comito and storm into the quarter-finals on home soil.
The 36-year-old produced a brace of 11-darters on his way to a whitewash victory over his fellow West Australian thrower, also landing two maximums and a 171 to set up a mouth-watering last eight showdown against Gerwyn Price.
“To perform like that in front of a home crowd means so much,” insisted Heta, who enjoyed the adulation of the Australian crowd as he made his entrance to ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
“I haven’t stepped up to the plate here in recent years, so to have a great load of fun and for it to go down like that, I’m absolutely stoked.
“I’ve played Joe Comito many times. When I first played him, it was 18-0 to him, but since then he has never beaten me, so I will let him know about it!”
Heta will now lock horns with top seed Price on Saturday, after the Welshman recovered from an inauspicious start to close out a resounding 6-2 success against Harley Kemp.
The pair traded holds in a scrappy start to proceedings, before Price established a commanding 4-1 buffer, reeling off three consecutive legs in 12, 13 and 13 darts.
Kemp doubled his tally with a magnificent 143 checkout in leg six, although Price was undeterred, conjuring up an effortless 140 finish in leg eight to seal his progress in style.
“A win is a win, but I need to improve,” declared Price, who crashed in four 180s and averaged just under 99 to complete a professional performance.
“I was slow coming out of the blocks. I struggled early on, but I found my form towards the middle and end of the game.
“I’m a little bit inconsistent at the minute. I’m playing well in patches, but hopefully I can find something close to my A-game tomorrow and then I can win the tournament.”
World Champion Michael Smith and world number three Peter Wright will lock horns for a place in the semi-finals, after kicking off their campaigns with 6-2 victories over Mal Cuming and Darren Penhall respectively.
Cuming drew first blood against world number one Smith with a classy 112 outshot, only for the St Helens star to win six of the next seven legs to continue his challenge for a second World Series title of 2023.
Meanwhile, Wright’s mid-game change of darts inspired his win over DartPlayers Australia number one Penhall, as the Scot returned to winning ways following his early exit in Hamilton.
NZ Darts Masters champion Rob Cross began his bid for back-to-back World Series titles with an impressive 6-2 victory over DPNZ qualifier John Hurring, who fired in three 180s in defeat.
Hurring followed up a superb double-double 97 finish with a 70 kill to lead 2-1, although Cross dominated the latter stages, winning the last five legs without reply to triumph with a 98 average.
Cross will now take on Dutch number two Danny Noppert, who converted 121 and 110 checkouts to complete a hard-fought 6-3 win over big stage debutant Brenton Lloyd in the evening’s opener.
Elsewhere, Dimitri Van den Bergh defied a sub-par display to condemn Australian qualifier Dave Marland to his third whitewash defeat in four World Series appearances, setting up a tie against Whitlock in the last eight.
The NSW Darts Masters will conclude on a bumper Saturday evening in Wollongong, with the action broadcast live on Fox Sports in Australia, through DAZN in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and on PDCTV in all other global territories.
UK fans can watch live through PDCTV - subscription options include the PDCTV Summer Pass. Coverage on ITV4 in the UK will begin from 1700 BST on Saturday.
2023 PalmerBet NSW Darts Masters
Friday August 11
Danny Noppert 6-3 Brenton Lloyd
Dimitri Van den Bergh 6-0 Dave Marland
Damon Heta 6-0 Joe Comito
Rob Cross 6-2 John Hurring
Gerwyn Price 6-2 Harley Kemp
Simon Whitlock 6-5 Nathan Aspinall
Peter Wright 6-2 Darren Penhall
Michael Smith 6-2 Mal Cuming
Saturday August 12 (1900 local time)
Gerwyn Price v Damon Heta
Dimitri Van den Bergh v Simon Whitlock
Michael Smith v Peter Wright
Rob Cross v Danny Noppert
Best of 11 legs
Price/Heta v Van den Bergh/Whitlock
Smith/Wright v Cross/Noppert
Best of 13 legs
Best of 15 legs