HOME hopes in the inaugural TAB Auckland Darts Masters were extinguished on Friday night as Rob Szabo, Craig Caldwell and Mark Cleaver suffered first round defeats, while World Champion Gary Anderson avoided a huge upset against debutant Rob Modra.
The PDC World Series of Darts event kicked off with over 4,000 fans watching the eight first round games at the Trusts Arena, which included a trio of New Zealanders in action against some of the sport's biggest names.
Domestic number one Rob Szabo came up against the world number one Michael van Gerwen, and despite a plucky performance from the Wellington-based builder, he went down 6-3.
Van Gerwen's 92 to win the opening leg was cancelled out by Szabo's double nine, before the Dutchman strung together brilliant legs of 14, 11 and 12 darts to sweep into a 4-1 cushion.
Szabo landed a 180 and tops as he took the sixth leg, with van Gerwen hitting a 131 finish to move 5-2 up and to the brink of victory.
The world number one also landed two 180s in a leg for the second time in the game in the next leg, but double ten kept Szabo in the game before van Gerwen stepped in to eventually claim his quarter-final spot on double five.
"Of the qualifiers I think Rob was the best player and I had to perform well," said van Gerwen.
"I remember he made it difficult for Phil in the World Championship and that was in my mind, and Rob did well in a few moments but he had too many loose darts in this game."
The three-time Dubai Darts Masters champion added: "I'm trying to win this tournament. The last two World Series events didn't go as well for me but I'm really looking forward to putting on a fantastic performance here in New Zealand."
Szabo will compete in the World Championship in London in December, and admitted: "It's not the result I wanted because I always thought that if I could play my top game I'd have a shot.
"I got into the match at the end but he threw well and I enjoyed the battle."
Another Wellington ace, Craig Caldwell, suffered a 6-0 whitewash to a clinical Phil Taylor, who averaged 104.86 and hit six doubles from eight attempts in his 13-minute triumph.
Taylor kicked off the game with scores of 140 and 180, but actually only won the opening leg - with a 68 finish - after Caldwell had wired the bullseye for a 161 checkout.
He added another 180 in leg two, which he won by taking out 63, and then landed double 16 in successive legs to lead 4-0.
A 108 checkout saw Taylor move five legs clear, with Caldwell then wiring double 16 to finish 104 in the next as the 16-time World Champion fired in tops to complete a ruthless win.
"The 6-0 scoreline looks like a thrashing but it wasn't," said Taylor. "My finishing was good tonight.
"Craig had to win a tournament just to qualify to get here, which is a great achievement. He's a good player but he just lacks that little bit of experience on TV and he's getting that now, and I think he's going to improve.
"The first leg was the turning point because if he'd hit that bullseye it could have been a different game. He'd have been 1-0 up and confident, so that 68 finish was the key shot for me.
"I'm really determined to win this tournament and it's a great start for me."
The event's other New Zealander, Stratford-based Mark Cleaver, was defeated 6-1 by world number four Peter Wright on his televised debut.
Wright kicked off the game with a 180 and won the opening leg with a 12-darter, before hitting another maximum and double ten to break in the second.
Cleaver, who had battled through the DPNZ Qualifiers in Swanson this week to earn his debut on the big stage, missed two darts to get off the mark in the third as Wright moved 3-0 up on double one, before the home hope landed tops in the next to hit back.
Wright, though, responded by hitting the same bed to regain his cushion at 4-1, before taking out 116 and 81 in the next two legs to seal his win.
"I wanted to perform well for the crowd here and I started great with the 12-darter, but it was downhill from there," said Wright.
"Mark's a good player and he was hitting everything when he was practicing, but it was his first time on stage and he wanted to perform for his home crowd. I think he tightened up and it didn't quite go as he would have wanted to.
"I wanted to go out and hit a big 100+ average and that didn't happen, but I'm through and that's the most important thing."
World Champion Gary Anderson stared defeat in the face against Australian debutant Rob Modra before snatching a narrow 6-5 win in a dramatic first round contest.
After Anderson took out 88 on the bull and tops to win the first two legs, he could only watch as Adelaide's Modra took out 100, 126 and 120 to stun the Scot and take a 3-2 advantage.
The Australian also missed four darts to take the sixth leg as Anderson escaped from misses across three earlier visits by landing double one to level - only to see Modra finish 78 on tops for a 4-3 lead and double eight to move 5-4 up.
Anderson posted a maximum and tops to take the game into a decider, in which he landed a 180 to be first to a finish - only to then miss two darts at double 19 to finish 95.
Modra, though, was unable to take out 100 to snatch the win, and Anderson returned to spare his blushes on double 19.
"I've not seen Rob for about ten years and I hope it's another ten years before I see him again because his finishing was superb," joked Anderson afterwards. "I was scoring well but I'd miss a double and he was checking out.
"It's my first time in New Zealand so I was a bit shaky but I've got through this."
Australian star Simon Whitlock claimed a superb 6-4 win over number eight seed Stephen Bunting in a see-saw contest to set up a quarter-final against Phil Taylor in Auckland on Saturday.
Whitlock has been defeated in the first round of the World Series of Darts events in Perth and Sydney over the past fortnight, but showed his class against the former Lakeside Champion.
Finishes of 76 and 62 were an ideal start for Whitlock, with Bunting taking the third leg on double 16 only to see the former European Champion take the next three, twice punishing missed doubles from his opponent before hiting a 177 and a 68 finish to establish a 5-1 cushion.
Bunting regained his range on double 16 to hit back in leg seven, and landed a 180 and double 19 to break throw before taking out 62 to suddenly pull back to 5-4.
He also opened the tenth leg with a 180, but Whitlock fired in a 171 score as he left 94 before finishing the combination on double six to hold off Bunting's fightback and surge over the winning line.
"I've got every emotion going through me and that was an amazing win," admitted Whitlock. "I'm over the moon to win again and I want to build on this now.
"I've been working really hard and I was confident when I went out there.
"When he got back to 5-3 I started to feel under pressure but I wanted one chance to win the match and I got it, and took it. I haven't won many games on TV lately but I held it together, which is fantastic."
Whitlock added: "Phil's the best player in the world right now; he's won in Perth and Sydney with amazing darts so he's going to be tough to beat, but hopefully I'll get the New Zealand crowd behind me.
"I've got a lot of fans here and friends and I feel right at home in New Zealand. I got a fantastic reception and I'll do the best I can against Phil and play my own game."
Adrian Lewis made a clinical start to his challenge in Auckland, following up last week's run to the final in Sydney with a 6-2 defeat of DPA Qualifier David Platt.
Platt shared the game's first four legs, despite Lewis landing a trio of maximums, but the World Champion finished double ten for a 3-2 lead before breaking throw with a killer 121 checkout on the bull.
Double eight moved Lewis three legs clear, and when Platt missed his chance to keep the game alive, the Stoke ace stepped in once more on double ten as he set up a quarter-final clash with Anderson.
"David's a good mate from when he was back in the UK, and to be honest it was the draw that I didn't want so I'm happy with that win," said Lewis. "He scored pretty well but the 121 checkout changed the game.
"I scored brilliantly in patches tonight but I finished really well and that's what I'm most impressed with. If my finishing stays like that I think I've got a great chance this weekend."
Raymond van Barneveld needed just 14 minutes to set up a quarter-final against Dutch rival van Gerwen with a 6-0 whitewash of qualifier Loz Ryder, as the Australian Grand Prix number one was condemned to defeat in the first round.
Finishes of 78 and 112 put van Barneveld in command immediately before he tok out double 16 and 80 to take a 4-0 lead, with double eight moving him to the brink of a win which was sealed in style with an 11-darter, featuring a 180 and a 76 checkout.
"I was very confident and I've been scoring well in practice, and I felt comfortable and in the zone so it's a fantastic win," said van Barneveld.
"Loz didn't play his A-game but the target is always to beat your opponent 6-0 so I'm very happy to have done that, really satisfied."
James Wade held off a spirited fightback from Paul Nicholson before pulling clear to claim a 6-3 win from their first round contest as he progressed to a meeting with Wright.
A superb start saw the recent Perth Darts Masters finalist take a 3-0 lead, finishing 108 in the opening leg, hitting two 180s as a 13-darter doubled the advantage and tops to move three legs up.
Nicholson, though, hit back with double 16 before punishing five missed doubles from Wade to finish double ten, and a fine 14-darter completed on tops saw the former Players Championship Finals winner level the game.
Wade, though, took a key seventh with a clinical 70 checkout, pinned a third-dart double three to move 5-3 up and then landed tops to complete victory.
"I wasn't at my best, but I'm happy with the win," said Wade. "It was a slog but Paul isn't at his best at the moment and it's hard playing against him.
"We all know how good he can be, but I had to get the job done tonight and I got there in the end."
The quarter-finals will take place on Saturday evening (7pm), before the tournament concludes on Sunday with the semi-finals and final at the Trusts Arena.
The TAB Auckland Darts Masters will be played at the Trusts Arena from August 28-30. Tickets can be purchased through Eventfinda viawww.eventfinda.co.nz or through 0800 BUY TIX (289 849).
TAB Auckland Darts Masters
Friday August 28
Adrian Lewis 6-2 David Platt
Peter Wright 6-1 Mark Cleaver
James Wade 6-3 Paul Nicholson
Phil Taylor 6-0 Craig Caldwell
Raymond van Barneveld 6-0 Loz Ryder
Stephen Bunting 4-6 Simon Whitlock
Michael van Gerwen 6-3 Rob Szabo
Gary Anderson 6-5 Rob Modra
Best of 11 legs
Saturday August 29 (7pm)
James Wade v Peter Wright
Michael van Gerwen v Raymond van Barneveld
Phil Taylor v Simon Whitlock
Gary Anderson v Adrian Lewis
Best of 15 legs
Sunday August 30 (7pm)
Semi-Finals - Best of 19 legs
Final - Best of 21 legs