NOMINATING a TV major winner, who returned to reach the final of the Winmau World Masters twenty-one years later, as an ‘Unsung Hero’ may seem a bit of a stretch, but the label can certainly be applied to the USA’s Larry Butler.
An ‘Immortal’ on the other hand, seems fair enough, The Bald (or American Eagle for the politically correct) Eagle, now 63-years-of-age, and back playing, after a severe heart attack laid him low in 2018, has a remarkable winning record and longevity that can only be matched, perhaps, by Paul Lim.
Butler first appeared on the steel tip scene in 1992 qualifying for the BDO World Championships in the year made immortal by the Taylor – Gregory final. That year’s field was immensely strong and the American lost out to Dennis Priestley.
These were tough times for the sport, with declining TV coverage and the newly formed WDC (PDC) struggling to gain momentum. The Ohio man retreated to the US and concentrated on soft-tip – claiming back-to-back (Bullshooter) World titles in ‘92 and ‘93 – only to return to the UK as part of the PDC’s inaugural World Championship in 1994 and was very unfortunate to be eliminated, in the group stage, on leg difference.
Within months Dayton’s tungsten titan was to write himself into darts’ history books at the inauguration of another PDC flagship event, the World Matchplay.
The unheralded Butler made it through the first two rounds with relative ease, but his defeat of Jocky Wilson in the Qtr-finals was a signal that he was a serious threat for the title. Wilson was playing well enough to have removed Alan Warriner-Little and Peter Evison in his previous two matches and yet Butler saw ‘the wee man’ off with relative ease.
Shayne Burgess also failed to halt the US thrower in the semi-final, with Butler narrowly missing a 9-darter along the way, there was only one man who could prevent him from lifting that famous trophy. That man was, however, Dennis Priestley.
Now, if they were being honest, a final match-up between these two would not have been the promoters’ or the TV people’s choice. Watch it today however and it’s a belter. Two serious and careful men, at or near the top of their game, giving a demonstration of methodical, controlled darts at its best. The nerves are on display from the very start as each man knows that the other can not be given an inch.
Despite missed doubles and Butler breaking in leg three, The Menace hit back with a 124 finish and kept things all square. Priestley then produced a spell of increased scoring power and moved into a 7-3 lead. Surely the debutant would falter?
Remarkably Butler hit back with five legs on the spin and edged into the lead himself. For the only time, I can remember the commentary team admitting that Dennis had become rushed and was struggling to re-find his successful rhythm. After 20 legs had been played Larry was ahead 11-9 and had won 8 from the last 10 legs played.
At 13-11, the pivotal moment came. Butler had gone off the boil a little and Dennis was swiftly down to a finish. With only one leg between them surely the more experienced man would come through? Yet, it was he who faltered. The Menace missed nine darts to take the leg and Butler produced a superb single dart, at an obscured double eight, to extend his lead and within a very few minutes, he had claimed the two additional legs needed. The title was his by 16 to 12!
Tragically, for the US player at least, the game of darts was at such a low ebb that there was no ‘Professional Tour’ to sustain a North American player at that time meaning that trying to earn a living, by travelling to Europe for the few TV events, was unsustainable and slowly but surely Butler drifted away from the top of the PDC game. A return to soft-tip saw him crowned World Champion for the third time in 1997 but other highlights were few and far between.
After those lean years, what is now known as the Pro Tour began to develop in earnest and a now 50+-year-old Butler made an attempt at it in 2008/9. Although he made only a minor impact he did record a 9-darter during a PDC event in Las Vegas and reached a quarter-final.
What was not noticed by UK darts officianadoes however was that Butler had started winning again in America. His record in the American Darts Organisation (ADO) events was outstanding, even more so for a ‘senior’ player, Butler was already in his fifties at the point. In 2010/11 he scored over a dozen event wins and seemed never far away from any U.S title he contested.
Over the next few years, he became, along with Paul Lim, what can be described as a hybrid darts professional: Soft-tip or steel tip, domestic or international, regardless of code. A real “have darts will travel” journeyman.
Suddenly, the winning habit and all the work and ‘practice’ he was getting came together again. The Bald Eagle returned to the mainstream in a big way.
2015 had started quietly as Butler, along with Darin Young, represented the USA in the PDC’s World Cup of Darts. He returned to the USA and picked up the winning habit again immediately before returning to the UK where he produced a run of results few would have believed in advance.
First Butler stormed through the BDO field to qualify for one of their places in the PDC’s Grand Slam of Darts (Yes, a PDC World Matchplay Champion qualified for BDO spot!) his last three wins were over Glen Durrant, Wayne Warren and Scott Waites.
Brimming with confidence he then took his place at the Winmau World Masters where he again defeated Waites and added Scott Mitchell and the scalp of Martin Adams. Playing from the last 272, he reached the final. This time Duzza, at his peak, denied Larry the full fairytale. But it was not over for the now 55-year-old.
Two days later Butler bagged the English leg of the ADO World Masters before moving on to Turkey and claiming a Quarterfinal spot in the WDF World Cup and the Turkish leg of the ADO Masters series.
Returning to England to take up his Grand Slam place (possibly a little tired!) he did not progress from his initial group. Incredibly, he was still not finished, he returned home to claim three titles in a row before taking his place in the (BDO) World Championships at the Lakeside for the first time since 1992, reaching the last 16.
Although his 2015/16 efforts were noted at the time, they were certainly not given the attention or credit due.
The Bald Eagle was flying between various continents while switching between codes, formats, or even types of darts. He was winning everywhere, against any class of opposition, it was a stunning run that should be credited as a blueprint for (particularly non-UK) players in the modern era.
Although Larry’s form stayed at a very high level in the US and some soft tip events, the demands on his older constitution saw a decline in major and TV results after 2016. Disaster struck when he suffered a heart attack after returning to Ohio following the World Cup in 2018. Fortunately, after multiple operations, he made a full recovery and was back playing by the Autumn of that year.
Although not quite back to winning ways the remarkable 63-year-old was still reaching qtrs, semis, and finals up until the spring of 2020 when Covid-19 forced him to rest his arrows once more. Almost beyond even Butler’s superhuman efforts he was back and reaching the semi-final of the Cherry bomb event in Florida last month!
It would be a pleasure to see a healthy Butler back at his best and perhaps in the UK for a Matchplay or World Seniors welcome and acknowledgment of his huge contribution to all forms of our game.
Could the Butler do it, again?
This piece was written prior to Larry being invited to be part of the World Seniors Darts events.
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