Justin Pipe is arguably the best darts player in the world right now. But only two years ago you would have been more likely to find him climbing a tree than toeing the oche, and he is lucky to be able to throw darts at all, let alone with the accuracy that makes him a contender in the £1 million Ladbrokes World Darts Championships which begin on Thursday at Alexandra Palace.
Until recently, the Taunton-born former tree surgeon's game was known less for its quality than its slow pace, the result of a motoring accident in 1993 that paralysed his right arm for three months. His re-learned throwing action begins with a deliberate drawing back of his hand followed by a pause that seems to keep the dart stationary for several seconds.
"The slow action came from teaching my arm and my shoulder how to move again really, and it was quite effective," he said. "I had to take my time, go through every motion – how to pick my arm up, how to move my shoulder – so I'm concentrating on each dart and giving it 100 per cent."
He takes around 20 seconds to throw three darts, five seconds longer than the world No 1, Phil "The Power" Taylor, and more than twice as long as reigning world champion Adrian Lewis. Lesser opponents have complained he disrupts their rhythm. "I think that's all in their heads, to be honest," he said. "Every now and then on the tour somebody mumbles about me being slow and it's usually because they've lost. I walk out to the board quick, get my darts out quick and walk back quick. If it was tactical I'd be messing around walking up or walking back."
Messing around would not have got Pipe, who turned 40 last month, very far in his previous line of work. "We used to specialise in large dismantling jobs, dead and dying trees, working with cranes, sometimes in very awkward situations. It is very, very dangerous. Our insurance category, I believe, is the same as for deep-sea divers, which is the highest you can get.
"Some days it was an easy pruning job, another day you might be climbing a 100-foot dead redwood. You can be working under big lumps of wood, and I've had a few close shaves. When you don't know if you're going to go home, getting up on a stage in front of a few thousand people doesn't seem too bad."
If his old outdoor life seems at odds with the commonly held view of the darts professional, so does his present healthy regime. He boxed in his youth as well as playing darts, and now he stays fit by running two or three miles a day. He only drinks occasionally – "a shandy if I go out with Claire, my wife, but that's it" – and dislikes cigarette smoke.
"I stepped down from darts when I was 21 to concentrate on building up my business," he explains. "I'd always played, in the garage, just to stay in harness, but when I was about 36, the smoking ban came in, which made a huge difference. In smoky venues my eyes ran really bad, tears used to stream down my cheeks and that had been a factor in me not bothering any more. But as soon as the ban came in [in 2007] I was able to enter open competitions and not worry about the smoke."
He came to national attention the following year, qualifying for the 2008 UK Open, and credits Clifton Mitchell and Matt Ward, his managers since last April, with making 2011 his breakthrough year. He won his first Pro Tour event in Dublin in October, beating Taylor 6-5 in the final, and proceeded to win two more titles to finish top of the year's final Players Championship Order of Merit.
His recent victories have given him confidence as the World Championships approach but he is as wary of danger as he was in handling chainsaws and climbing high branches. "You've got to feed off those results and tell yourself: 'I've beaten these guys and I can do it wherever and whenever.' I've proved that I've got the game and the mental strength. But you've got a very small window in which to produce your top game and you've got to hit the ground running or you're on your way home.
"Last year I think I gave a good account of myself on my World Championship debut against Mark Walsh, although unfortunately it didn't go my way. This year I'm seeded, and I'm up against Sean Reed, the Australian. He's no mug, the same as everyone else in the competition. They all deserve to be there, so I'll be treating Sean with the same respect I would treat Mr Taylor."
Pipe does not regret the circumstances that prevented him reaching the top until now. "When you're young you don't realise what you've got and what you can do. I wasn't right mentally to play darts and be calm. Now I have a daughter and two sons, I've matured and mellowed and have a different outlook. Before, it was a bit of fun. Now it's my living and I don't throw my darts for the crowd, I throw them for my family, so it has a different meaning. And I think that shows in what has happened this year."