Australia's Simon Whitlock cuts an intimidating figure on the world's darts stages.
With his trademark mullet ending in a dreadlock ponytail and sporting a long goatee beard, he appears to be the quintessential Aussie ocker made good through his ability to throw darts.
It’s partly true, he is an Aussie made good through throwing darts but it’s taken dedication, hard work and some personal losses along the way.
As for being an ocker, the on-stage appearance is part and parcel of Whitlock the dart player but he is anything but an ocker.
Quietly spoken, calm, confident but self effacing, funny and erudite in his answers, Whitlock is above all supremely grateful for the security and life darts has given him.
“Darts have been extremely good to me. I have been set up for life and get to do something I love every day of the week,” Whitlock said over coffee at the Crown Metropol on the eve of the Melbourne Darts Masters which starts on Friday at Hisense Arena.
“There have been some tough times and probably the hardest thing is that I’ve missed a lot of seeing my sons (three sons from two marriages) grow up.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to catch up with the two youngest boys this trip, but my eldest son, who is 26 now, will be joining me in Melbourne and through to Perth. We’re both looking forward to having time together.”
Taking a sip from his latte, a new found pleasure, and dressed with his dreadlocks tucked beneath a dark hoodie and wearing a Western Bulldogs polo, Whitlock blends into the environment comfortably.
He could almost go under the radar, unless of course he is spotted by one of the legion of darts fans in Australia.
“When you’re as tall as me and look the way I do you stand out. The fans do approach you whether I’m in the UK, Europe or here in Australia,” he said.
“They are generally great and you get to meet some wonderful people along the way.
“The Bulldogs shirt is a gift from (former AFL fotootballer) Will Minson who is a big fan of the darts and gave it to me as a present a couple of years ago.”
Tall, blonde and strongly built, Whitlock grew up in NSW spending time between Hornsby in Sydney and Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.
His physic and work ethic would have made him an ideal second-rower in rugby league but his sporting dreams were a world away.
“At 16, I was practicing up to eight hours a day at darts and announced to my dad that I wanted to be a professional,” he said.
"I’d watched the darts on TV and just fell in love with the game. The stars of the day were Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson, Bob Anderson and John Lowe.
“When I told dad I wanted to be a professional darts player, he replied ‘finish school and get something behind you first’.
“It was probably good advice at the time as Eric Bristow got something like 6000 pounds when he won the world championship.
“When I was runner up to Phil Taylor in the world championship the first prize was 400,000 pounds and the runners up cheque was 200,000 pounds.
“It took me 22 years to go professional after I first told dad of my plans and I’ve been in the UK now playing at elite level for 11 years. But I’m glad it’s worked out the way it has.”
Whitlock said if it hadn’t been for his father’s early death, he could quite easily been living in the picturesque surrounds of Wollombi, a lush grazing area south-west of Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.
“After school I started work with dad as a brick layer and one of our projects was to build a house which turned pretty much into a mansion on a 100 acre property we had brought together at Wollombi,” he said.
“Unfortunately, dad left us too early and the whole idea of our Wollombi dream soured on me after his death.
“Otherwise I’d probably still be living there and building houses.”
Whitlock moved to Brisbane and his passion for darts saw him taking out more and more titles and competing on a semi-professional level.
I’d watched the darts on TV and just fell in love with the game. The stars of the day were Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson, Bob Anderson and John Lowe.
Renowned for closing games on 170, Whitlock said he honed his skills for the combination as there was a prize of $170 at competitions for anyone who could shut out a leg with 170.
“My mates and I used to go for it as it was good cash,” he said.
“It kind of stuck with me, and in reality it’s a pretty easy combination. Two triple 20s and a bullseye for the double.
“You’re aiming to shoot triple 20s all the time so it should be a comfortable shot.
“I’m comfortable pretty much with closing out with any combination. There’s no real double that worries me. You practice and play so much the combinations become second nature.
“If anything a double 20 is probably my favoured shot.”
Although doubles did create some problems for Whitlock af the recent Auckland Darts Masters where he was beaten in the quarter-finals by eventual winner and fellow Kyle Anderson.
The two are drawn in the first round at Melbourne on Friday night and Whitlock will be keen to atone for his missed chance.
“I gave up a two-game lead and then got back in front but couldn’t close it out. I had 40 to close and three darts just finished on the other side of the wire,” he said.
“I was millimetres away from winning and I was playing really good and feeling confident. That was probably a title that got away from me.
“But good luck to Kyle, he is a terrific bloke, and it was his first televised tournament win.
“Young Corey Cadby did very well as well and it went down right to the end for him in the final against Kyle.
“It’s good to see the next generation of Aussies coming along. You wish them the best and it’s good to see them going well, but when it comes to playing them we are all super competitive.
“There are some real blow-ups after losses. You are super competitive and want to win and when you lose you’re frustrated, angry and want to vent.
“It’s all very calm on stage, as there are pretty strict codes and you can get fined if you breach them.
“But back in the players’ area there is shouting, blokes occasionally smashing fists into walls and even the odd blow-up between guys when someone is upset by dirty tricks.”
Whitlock said the fines and risk of bans from tournaments had reduced the worst of angry outbirsts and dirty tricks substantially but some players still resorted to them to get an advantage.
“It could be blowing on your opponent’s neck or speaking when they’re about to throw,” he said.
“One of the favourites among some of the bigger boys was to lean their weight onto the stage to lift the floorboard as their opponent was taking their shot.”
Whitlock said the only time he punched a wall, karma bit him right back on the bum.
“I broke a knuckle in one of my fingers. Of course it was my throwing hand and I had to throw the next night,” he said.
On the whole he has been lucky with injury, avoiding shoulder troubles which plague a number of players.
His two worst injuries – a fractured ankle and a fractured wrists both came through accidents off stage going about normal life.
Whitlock fractured his wrist the week before June’s World Cup where he partnered Anderson for Australia.
“It was hurting and to give myself some stability I took my watch off and taped my wrist up with black electrical tape,” Whitlock said.
“I won my first game and we got through with a win in the doubles.
“But by then it was aching and I had it checked out at the hospital. The X-rays showed it was fractured and they were about to put me in a full cast.
“I managed to get a half cast and took it off and taped my wrist again.”
Whitlock manged to win his singles encounter, but Anderson dropped his match and their Russian opponents beat them 4-0 in the doubles.
“It’s fine now, but it was painful for a fair few weeks,” he said.
“I didn’t really tell anyone about it, I don’t think anyone would have noticed unless they asked why I had tape on my wrist instead of my watch.”
Based in the small village of Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, Whitlock said the darts fraternity, particularly the players in the 16-man Premier League were like a big family as they spent so much time together.
“We all get on well, but of course there are people you spend more time with and are closer to,” he said.
“My best friend on the tour is Peter Wright. We practice a fair bit together.
“Pete’s always got a board with him. He is the hardest worker on the tour by far.
“It’s been great to see his success over the past few years he’s certainly worked hard enough for it.”
Wright, whose tour nickname is Snake Bite, is renowned for his brightly coloured mohawk and painted cobra on the side of his head.
“In normal life Pete’s nothing like the flamboyant character he is on stage,” he said.
“He’s quiet, you’d almost say mild mannered. He’s great company and we get on really well.
“His hair is white, apparently it makes the colours stand out more when it’s dyed. I’ve never asked him but I think he might have just gone grey.”
Whitlock said he believes he still had a world championship in him and has no plans to retire.
“I think I’m probably a momentum type of player, I need to start well and keep on going,” he said.
“When I’m playing well I have the game to beat anyone on the tour including Michael (van Gerwen) who is obviously the top player at the moment.
“I haven’t thought about retirement. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and still playing well. I play competition 50 weeks of the year, I love it.
“I’m either playing a tournament, a league match or training most days.
“Even when I eventually do retire, you can make a very good living playing exhibition games so it’s something I really haven’t given a great deal of though.
“Darts has set me up for life. I own my own house, got a good car and money in the bank.”