Robert Thornton is preparing to defend the title that reignited his career twelve months ago, while 2008 and 2011 champion James Wade is chasing a trio of UK Open triumphs when the tournament dubbed ‘the FA Cup of darts’ gets underway on Thursday evening in Bolton.
Thornton provided the magic in 2012 as he ended 18 months of turmoil by clinching his first PDC major, despite entering the tournament as a 250-1 outsider.
The Scotsman had been recovering from a broken hand and a devastating bout of pneumonia before producing a string of fantastic performances to knock out a whole host of tournament favourites, culminating in a sensational final victory over Phil Taylor.
And Thornton, who has been in fantastic form ever since, admitted it was a special weekend for him.
“It is a time I will never forget,” said Thornton, who is now eleventh in the PDC Order of Merit and was selected for the 2013 Premier League.
“To have even been in that tournament after the previous 18 months was an achievement but to go and win it was a dream come true.
“It started up my career again and I’m looking forward to going back. I’ve got fabulous memories but more importantly, a title to defend.”
Thornton will begin his defence of the £40,000 first prize in Friday’s third round, having being amongst the top 32 qualifiers alongside Simon Whitlock, Michael van Gerwen, Paul Nicholson, Mark Webster and Raymond van Barneveld.
Wade is in action on Thursday after being drawn in a preliminary round clash against Robbie Green in the tournament’s curtain raiser.
Major titles have been elusive for the 30-year-old since his Bolton success in 2011 but ‘The Machine’ believes that the wait could be over.
He said: Winning it a couple of years ago is a great memory for me. I’ve been getting closer to my best over the last few months. I’m in a good place and I feel like it is a matter of when I start winning tournaments again, not if.
“I was disappointed that I couldn’t find my game in the semi-finals of the Premier League but that is gone now and there are three major tournaments up for grabs in the next couple of months and I hope I can take at least one of them.
“My target for this year is to win a couple of tournaments but if I am going to have a chance of making this the first of them then I will have to start firing straight away. There is no growing into the tournament at the UK Open because of the draw so you have to be ready and I will be.”
Wade will have to win three games to go into the hat for the third round draw, where the 32 second round winners will join the top 32 qualifiers.
Also in opening night action is Dutch ace Vincent van der Voort, who faces Scottish qualifier Andy Murray in a preliminary round match on the main stage.
Youngster Chris Aubrey takes on Steve Farmer for a place in the first round proper, while Keegan Brown, who is sponsored by Whitlock, faces Keith Rooney.
Aubrey could meet Arron Monk in round two.
Andy Jenkins and John Henderson have both also qualified for the second round, with the former facing Nigel Heydon.
Scotsman Henderson, who could meet any one of three potential opponents on Thursday night is hoping that a good run can set him on the way to achieving a personal target.
He said: “The last twelve months have been very difficult. I spent the earlier part of last year recovering from injury and I struggled to get any results.
“My confidence was very low but I feel like I’m getting there now. I had a bit of a break and I think that did me the world of good.
“My goal is to get into the top 32 this year and I take a lot of inspiration from Robert Thornton.”
The 2013 Speedy Services UK Open will run from Thursday June 6 to Sunday June 9.
The open draw for the third round will be made following Thursday night’s play.
By Chris Murphy
SEE FOUR TOP DARTS STARS IN ACTION IN NORTH WALES ON JUNE 14 – TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE