Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Big Read: The Godfather of darts is back in NZ

Phil Taylor. Photo by Nick Reed
Phil Taylor. Photo by Nick Reed

Phil Taylor let everyone know who was the boss before the last world darts championships in London.

The 16-time champ was photographed as Don Corleone, screen legend Marlon Brando's famous mafioso, for a darts calendar.

"The other players know I'm the Godfather of darts, but the trouble is I'm also the grandfather of darts as well," said Taylor, who wields the odd line you might expect from a frustrated stand-up comedian.

There will never be another Phil Taylor, who at 55 is only now being tugged back into the pack.

Dutchman Michael van Gerwen is sweeping all before him except at the world championships where Scot Gary Anderson has won the past two titles.

But the Stoke-on-Trent maestro still lurks - he is third on the PDC Order of Merit and leading up to this weekend's Auckland Darts Masters Taylor won the teams World Cup in Germany and a title in Vienna.

And this on a gruelling schedule which others in darts' elite fraternity say can leave them drained.

Taylor has come off a tough few years, which included divorce and the death of his mother while he was on an exhibition tour in New Zealand early last year.

It may say something about his inner workings that immediately after her funeral he drove - actually, Taylor is driven by ever present PA Bob Glenn - to a tournament 400km away.

Insiders say that Taylor could be a little grumpy at times, as he found himself minus any of the major TV titles for the first time in two decades of extraordinary dominance.

But as we meet at a West Auckland burger restaurant, the venue for the Darts Masters draw, Taylor is a chirpy figure, dressed in the darts smock which announces that "The Power" is in town.

The place is jammed packed turning everyone into meat in the sandwich. But Taylor looks as crisp as a lettuce leaf and he intends to keep it that way.

From next year, he will severely trim his commitments, bypassing the many non-televised but still fairly lucrative for most Pro Tour tournaments in Europe as his age starts to approach triple 20.

To underline the draining nature of being a darts superstar, he rattles off his current travel diary - Dubai, Heathrow, Tenerife for business, England, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, China, Japan, back to England, Blackpool for two weeks, Germany, Australia ...

"I had to rest when I got here," says Taylor. "I've been doing more flying than Superman - it's mental. That's typical [itinerary] now ... the world tour has really taken off, and you can add Las Vegas next year.

"I had to catch up on my sleep, whereas some of the lads will be out and about."
What keeps him going?

"It's my job, and I've got other people to think about," says Taylor, who has $14 million in career winnings.

"If it was just me, I could retire tomorrow. I've got sponsors to think about, I'm a big shareholder in the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation), my daughter, my son, there's Bob [Glenn] to think about.

"The way I was reared, you do any job to the best of your ability. And deep down, I still enjoy it. I'm still very competitive."

So what about those "grumpy" rumours, when the big wins dried up?

"The challenge and competition [from van Gerwen and co] is healthy," says Taylor. "But I hate losing. It drives me crackers."

Taylor is very lucky in one respect. His long distance sight is amazingly good for anybody, let alone a 55-year-old. If my hearing is right in the noisy burger barn, Taylor says he can still read three lines below the optician's 20/20 benchmark.

He's also got the large and loyal Glenn - who sits in on the interview - taking care of day-to-day matters.

"Bob looks after everything - Bob's like me wife, but without the sex," says the impish Taylor.

The two recent wins have no doubt helped his mood, and Taylor puts previous form dips down to a few snags hitting doubles. Some say he is not far off his best, but world champion Anderson indicates the 27-year-old van Gerwen's stunning rise has at least been partly aided by a slip in Taylor's standards.

"Michael has been something else in the past 24 months," says the 45-year-old Anderson, the world number two. "His confidence is sky high. He's walking up there thinking he's not going to be beaten. He's not worried about who he plays, when he plays, where he plays.

"But he's got a long way to go to top what Phil has done. And Phil is still a very dangerous player even though he hasn't got his A game.

"Phil's is about a G or H for him, that's how far down he is. But it is still good enough to beat most of us. He's still winning which is amazing. I find it tiring at my age."

The darts world, including the veteran promoter Barry Hearn, have naturally wondered how long the Taylor show will last, or even if it should.

Hearn, the accountant who turned the backroom sport into the phenomenon it is today, is a fastidious overlord who I am told still does his own player ranking updates and carefully checks tournament figures.

Hearn told the Guardian last year that Taylor was "in denial about the ageing process" and suggested money drove him on.

"We've got to get it to the stage where the game gets bigger and bigger and the other personalities get bigger, so that we've got a replacement. Sooner or later Phil will lose the appetite," Hearn said. Or maybe not.

Taylor looks in good physical shape - he's decidedly trimmer than a few of his much younger opponents - although some of his reported juice programmes and diet surges to keep the weight off can sound a little maniacal.

An amateur psychologist might suggest that only-child Taylor's famously poor upbringing - there was no electricity for a while - has lodged deep fears around income that even millions in the bank can't root out.

Taylor has a simple answer about retirement, from the father of pop star Robbie Williams.
Pete Conway (Williams), who was an entertainer, lived close by when Taylor was growing up, and is a second father to the darts supremo.

Taylor says: "Retirement does cross the mind now and then, especially when you see the schedule and Bob starts rattling on about what we're doing.

"Pete is like my little Yoda, full of knowledge. He told me I'll wake up one day and I'll know."

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