So this is what it looks like when a turkey takes its last gasp. No, we're not talking about a Thanksgiving entr�e, but rather that other bloated, overcooked bird that comes with the holiday, the Skins Game. The 13th edition of the Skins was played this weekend in Palm Desert, Calif., and it was about as much fun as two days of indigestion. This snoozer came with all the usual trimmings: four big-name golfers tripping over themselves trying to be funny, a gimmicky desert course and—ho hum—$540,000 up for grabs.
Fred Couples did earn the biggest serving of gravy, $270,000, all for rapping in an eight-foot birdie putt on the fifth playoff hole. At that point you could have cut the tension with a spoon. Couples's putt ended a string of 12 straight carryovers, a Skins Game record for futility, and brought to an end an imaginative playoff format that had the foursome playing holes 18, 17, 18, 17 and, finally, 18 again. For the record, Corey Pavin ka-chinged $240,000, Peter Jacobsen earned (to use the word lightly) $30,000, and Tom Watson was shut out. But this fete will be remembered for only one thing.
It proved once and for all that the Skins Game, like Sansabelt slacks, is an idea whose time has passed.
This has been coming for a while. The Skins burst onto the golf scene in 1983 on the strength of big money and big personality. At the dawn of the Me Decade, the extravagant first-year purse of $360,000 had real sex appeal. These days the Skins' purse is chump change, what with the advent of huge endorsement money and appearance fees, and the glut of other high-yield Silly Season events. Saturday afternoon, after pocketing $150,000 on the front nine, Pavin sounded as if he had found an old dollar bill in his Levi's. "Sure I'm excited," he said, not sounding very excited. "Money is money. It will pay some bills, go toward my kids' education, things of that nature."
Couples put his big payday in historical perspective. "The turnaround," he said, "was like the Mongolian reversal." Say what?
The fans were similarly blas� about the money. The gallery at Bighorn Golf Club was too busy trying to avoid heatstroke while scrambling around the course's brutal terrain to get fired up about millionaires winning another hundred thousand or two. At least they weren't bused from green to green, as they were last year. More damning than the lack of enthusiasm toward the big bucks is that all the charismatic players have been put out to pasture. The Skins Game used to showcase swashbuckling Arnold Palmer, wisecracking Lee Trevino, insouciant Fuzzy Zoeller and regal Jack Nicklaus. Now it stars Pavin (dull), Jacobsen (overactive), Couples (somnolent) and Watson (stuffy)—the worst bunch yet. "The Skins Game started out as a tournament of personalities," says Jacobsen, "and we're trying to keep up that tradition." That's the problem.
Recognizing that the event might be getting old, the pooh-bahs at the Skins Game tried to spice things up. Five cars were added to the booty, which didn't rev a lot of engines. However, the inaugural Gillette Putting Challenge was one of the highlights of the weekend. Forty-five-year-old John Brinson of Goldsboro, N.C, was randomly selected from half a million entries and given a 10-foot putt worth a cool mil if he made it. He didn't. But Brinson was a likable character, and he was able to keep his dignity even though the Gillette people plastered him with so many logos he looked like a NASCAR ride. Brinson isn't much of a golf fan ("I thought I was signing up for tickets to see the Redskins," he said), but he did prove that the spirit of the Skins Game is contagious. At a post-putt press conference, Brinson thanked the four PGA Tour luminaries for their advice and inspiration, and then he added, "I would also like to thank Gillette for their sponsorship...."
This spirit of commerce is the only thing keeping the Skins Game alive.
All those flatulent turkey eaters who wedge themselves between the cushions of their couch, remote in hand, throughout the long Thanksgiving weekend have made the Skins a ratings juggernaut over the years. On a traditionally so-so football weekend, with basketball just heating up and a real golf tournament still more than a month away, it's no wonder sports fans are desperate for some action. "The detractors can say all they want," says Chuck Gerber, the executive director of OCC Sports, Inc., which produces the Skins for ABC, "but we are going to get a 5.0 rating, thank you very much. The Skins Game is the premiere made-for-TV event. Period."
Five times in its first nine years it finished as golf's second-most-watched event, behind only the venerable Masters, and in 1986 the Skins Game was No. 1. "And we would be Number 1 every year," says co-founder Barry Frank, "except the Masters runs until 7 p.m., when there are simply more people watching TV."