The Skins game came to the California desert last week for a face-lift, a tummy tuck, liposuction—the full Ivana. Desperate to return to its mid-'80s prime, the Skins even brought in golf's top cosmetologist, Tiger Woods, to work his makeover magic. Woods, along with handpicked foil John Daly, did succeed in stretching out a few new wrinkles and more than doubled a viewing audience that had sunk to an alltime low a year ago. But in the end, no one could keep this 14-year-old fossil from showing its age.
By the time the proceedings ended on Sunday at Rancho La Quinta Country Club, a generic layout in the nation's geriatric golf belt near Palm Springs, any sense of significance had evaporated. Yes, Fred Couples found a way to win yet another off-season event by earning $280,000. Tom Watson demonstrated his still formidable skill at 47 by playing the best golf in the foursome and taking home $220,000. Woods displayed occasional brilliance, but it was overshadowed by some poor timing that resulted in only two skins and $40,000. Daly proved that even if he isn't anywhere near the best player around—he didn't win a skin—he can still claim to be the longest. Yet even as the players all asked to be invited back, the winner admitted that nothing that had happened over the two days of competition meant very much. "I might not be using the right words, but it's not the greatest feat in the world," Couples said of his second straight Skins victory.
Winning the Skins Game has never meant much, but it used to mean more. The original allure was that the format created an exclusive, albeit artificial, arena for the game's top players, a place where they could put their egos and reputations on the line. By miking the golfers, TV gave viewers their first chance to hear Jack Nicklaus—once again doing battle with Arnold Palmer or Gary Player or Watson—calm his nerves by taking deep breaths. Today's Skins Game is no longer novel, having been diluted by countless Silly Season derivatives. Whereas an emotional Nicklaus threw his putter into the air as if he had just won a major after making a putt for $240,000 on the final hole in 1984, Couples spread his arms and shrugged when he snuck in an eight-footer on the 15th hole on Sunday to win the same amount.
Just as reputations are no longer at stake in the Skins Game, the monetary stakes have lost their impact too. In an age of $300,000 appearance fees—the amount Woods received to play in the recent Australian Open—the $540,000 the Skins Game offers barely covers the jet-fuel bill of today's super-Star. The PGA Tour's prize money has quadrupled since 1983, yet the purse at the Skins Game, which started at $360,000, has gone up a mere 50%. Sad to say, but judging by the soundtrack of the last several Skins, the money no longer induces heavy breathing.
Frankly, were it not for Woods, who was invited to play shortly after he won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur and turned pro, the Skins Game itself would be barely breathing. With an opportunity to get an intimate view of the charismatic but elusive Tiger, as well as see him take on Daly in a head-to-head distance duel, America watched in record numbers. Saturday's telecast of the first nine holes received an 8.2 rating and 19 share, reaching about eight million homes and surpassing the previous Skins Game high of 7.0, set in 1986. The numbers were good news to the event's organizers, who had seen the ratings shrink to 4.0 and a nine share in 1995. On Sunday this year's telecast had a 6.1 rating and 12 share.
With galleries in excess of 9,500 on Saturday, the largest at the Skins since '86, the atmosphere on the 1st tee was charged. Feeding the hype, officials painted yardage grids on several of Rancho La Quinta's wider fairways so that blimp-mounted cameras could instantly record the cannon shots of Daly and Woods, although during the days leading up to the event Woods was determined not to participate in the Who's longest? game. "The one thing we talked about was for Tiger not to get into a driving contest," said his coach, Butch Harmon. That philosophy seemed to fly out the window on the 1st hole. After Daly blasted his opening tee shot 340 yards down the middle—22 yards past Woods's ball—Tiger playfully gripped Daly's arm and said, "Man, that was a bomb," and then purposefully cranked out tee shots that averaged 353.3 yards the next three times he used his driver, on the 4th, 5th and 9th holes. Still, Daly outdrove Woods on two of those three.
Daly had altered his public stance from saying that he was looking forward to the distance showdown to predicting that "Tiger Woods is going to be past me," but he clearly was interested in the outcome. On the 586-yard 5th, where Woods ripped a drive of 377 yards, Daly passed him with an immense 380-yarder. When a referee, not taking into account the angle of the dog-legged fairway, initially ruled that Daly was away, Daly responded, "No f———way," prompting a reversal.
From there the duel cooled, with Woods following his game plan by frequently hitting a 15-degree driving iron off the tee while Daly snap-hooked several drivers into the rough, until the 577-yard 17th, a dead flat hole. Woods drilled his drive 322 yards. Daly caught his solid too, and his ball stopped less than a yard short of Woods's. For the moment those drives settled the issue of who is longest. "The 17th was the best test, so it's a tie," said Woods, with Daly nodding his assent.
It was that kind of Skins Game. Despite a terrific mix of talent, there was a lack of chemistry among the participants. The likable Couples, for example, is uncomfortable with the wiseacre byplay that television producers encourage when the players are miked. "I really don't like to needle people," he says. "What am I going to say that's going to bother Tom Watson? I'm afraid John Daly will beat me up if I say anything to him. I have another 10 years with Tiger, so I'm going to leave him alone."
Daly intentionally knocked over Watson's bag on the driving range to draw a laugh from the crowd but during play was detached and uncommunicative. When Daly got off to a poor start during the second nine, which began early Sunday morning, ABC course reporter Mark Rolfing gingerly asked, "You feeling all right, John?" Daly vacantly answered, "I don't know.... I'm just kind of hanging around right now." It was not a Skins Game moment. As one spectator dryly observed, "I don't think John is a morning person."