England’s newest sports sensation is a 16-year-old on the doorstep of winning arguably the world’s most prestigious darts tournament in his first try.
Luke Littler mowed down another accomplished veteran Tuesday in a semifinal match at the Professional Darts Corporation’s World Darts Championship. If he wins Wednesday’s final against Luke Humphries — a 28-year-old Brit whose own semifinal victory made him the new top-ranked player — Littler will have translated success at the junior level into sudden dominance at the highest tier of his sport in a way that has already drawn comparisons to Tiger Woods.
“It’s crazy to think I’m in a world championship final in my debut,” Littler said to Sky Sports after Tuesday’s 6-2 win over 33-year-old Rob Cross. “I was happy winning one game, but I could — I’m near to going all the way.”
Cross, who won the tournament in 2018, became the first opponent through six rounds of the event to take more than one set off Littler. (The format grows from best-of-five sets through the first two rounds to best-of-13 by the final.) Cross’s three-dart average of 102.77 in the semifinal was a fine mark in a sport where top players tend to score between 95 and 99, but he was blown off the oche by Littler’s average of 106.05.
It was the fourth time in the tournament Littler topped 100 and the third time he went over 105, including in a 4-1 win over Raymond van Barneveld, a 56-year-old Dutchman whose most recent of five world championship triumphs came three weeks before Littler was born.
“He’s just amazing,” Cross said of Littler before their match. “I’ve not seen a talent like that really turn up at the darts, and to be able to handle it in the way he’s handling it and not really getting involved in anything, he’s beyond his years of experience because he’s so professional.”
According to ITV, Littler began playing professionally at 12. He told the BBC recently that he started on magnetic darts at 18 months, got “a proper board” at 4 and began playing in pubs “four to five times a week” around 8.
It will still be over a year before Littler, whose hairline and thick stubble belie the fact that he won’t turn 17 until later this month, can drink in most circumstances at licensed establishments in Britain. He noted, however, the edge that sometimes provides in a sport that, even at its elite tier, doesn’t stray far from the pub culture in which it is steeped.
“Obviously, I don’t drink,” Littler said recently (via the BBC), “so it is a massive advantage over these pros who drink. They wake up with sore heads in the morning, and I’m fine.”
If at least some of the “pros” in darts are known to have a pint or two or three — albeit not while competing, per PDC rules — fans at the world championships can put those numbers to shame. Staged around the holiday season at London’s venerable Alexandria Palace, the PDC’s top event boasts a festival-like atmosphere. While seated at tables laden with pitchers of beer and cider, attendees are known to wear colorful costumes, roar the lyrics of popular songs and chant for their favorite competitors.
Littler said he has been hearing a lot of “You’ve got school in the morning.”
A native of Warrington, a town in northwest England situated between Liverpool and Manchester, Littler reportedly completed his General Certificate of Secondary Education last summer. Having earned the country’s qualification for those leaving school at 16, he was free to devote himself full-time to darts. A winner of numerous events at the youth level, including the past two JDC world championships, Littler competed in four senior events on the PDC’s premier circuit (per the BBC) before making his world championship debut.
In the short term, at least, financing his dream of a professional career won’t be an issue. Littler is guaranteed a minimum payday of approximately $253,000 for making the final and can make approximately $631,000 with a win. He can also expect to parlay his skyrocketing fame in the U.K. into more lucrative endorsement and appearance fees.
As Littler’s unprecedented success in the tournament — he was the youngest to win a match last month and is set to be the youngest by more than four years to compete in the final — has made headlines in his home country, some of the biggest names in darts have cautioned that the teenager needs to avoid becoming a victim of too much, too soon.
Predicting before the tournament that Littler “will be one of the best players ever,” 16-time world champion Phil Taylor said: “He’s the best [16-year-old] player I’ve ever seen in my life. We’ll see what happens in the next five years, when his hormones change, and he’s earned a few bob and wants to enjoy himself, naturally, when you’re 16, 17, 18. The lad could be a millionaire, but then you’ve got to stay in and dedicate yourself, and that’s going to be a bit difficult for the lad.”
Barry Hearn, a sports promoter whose company, Matchroom, owns the PDC, told the Telegraph recently that Littler’s family and management team must help the youngster “get the balance right where they still have a half-normal life.”
“They mustn’t just look at the money,” the 75-year-old Hearn said, “because that will come automatically if you are good enough. … If I was managing him, I’d put his fee up to an astronomical number and then, by the laws of supply and demand, that will cut down the possibility of him being burned out. The biggest job for him will be to actually control his diary.”
In the meantime, Hearn is keenly aware of the attention Littler’s precocious talent is bringing to darts.
“Promoters get carried away, but I’m getting carried away because it’s a quantum moment for the sport,” he said. “This is a Boris Becker moment. This is a Tiger Woods moment.”