The Golf event that sportswriters love to hate was played over the Thanksgiving weekend in La Quinta, Calif., and despite what you might have read elsewhere, it was a monster hit. Yes, the Skins Game is a TV-driven spectacle played on a weak desert course by microphone-wearing players who, despite their best efforts, will never pose a threat to Chris Rock's livelihood. It's time to get over all that. On its 15th anniversary the Skins looks to be heading into its second prime, and though media outlets across the land—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED included—have made a pastime of dissing it, the Skins should actually be celebrated for what it is: a good time enjoyed by players and loved by fans, and in its most recent incarnation, a showdown between Tiger Woods and the elite players who want a piece of him.
"I'm not really sure why writers like to bag on it so much," says Tom Lehman, who put a cherry on top of an otherwise unremarkable year by dominating the weekend with 10 skins worth half of the $600,000 purse. "It's an event made for TV, but it's not like it pretends to be something else. It shouldn't be compared to a major championship because all it's about is pure entertainment. What's wrong with that?"
Actually, comparing the Skins Game to the major championships highlights its virtues. Take the most revered tournament in golf, the Masters. An old saw says that the Masters doesn't begin until the final nine holes on Sunday. Then why sit through the first 63? The Skins offers instant gratification, making heroes out of goats and vice versa on almost every hole. "Part of what makes this event special," says Lehman, "is that it's 18 little tournaments in one."
In this year's format Lehman, Woods, Mark O'Meara and David Duval competed for $20,000 on each of the first six holes, $30,000 a hole on the middle six, $40,000 a hole on numbers 13 through 17, and, in a new wrinkle, the 18th was a Super Skin worth $100,000. Lehman was at his overpowering best throughout, shooting what would have been a 61 in stroke play and winning nine straight skins (one short of Fuzzy Zoeller's record, set in 1986) from the 5th hole through the 13th. But with Woods and Duval in pocket, he failed to cover O'Meara's birdie on the first playoff hole, allowing O'Meara to snag 100 grand and boost his two-day total to $240,000 on five skins. Woods, meanwhile, played the best golf of the bunch on Saturday but couldn't make a putt after collecting the first three skins, worth $60,000. A rusty Duval, who interrupted a seven-week vacation to serve as a last-minute stand-in for two-time defending champ Fred Couples, whose father, Tom, passed away on Thanksgiving Day after a six-year battle with leukemia, was skunked.
Another of the shopworn axioms regarding the major championships holds that most are lost, not won. The inverse is true at the Skins Game, where victory usually comes only with a bold and timely display of excellence. To no one's surprise, all of this year's skins were won with birdies. "Eighteen pars out here is no good," says Lehman, whose 10 birdies were a Skins Game record. "You need to go for the pin." Though it can be pleasurable to watch the pros cautiously cope with Augusta's unputtable greens, the ankle-high rough of the U.S. Open or the weeds and wind at the British Open, the Skins plays to every fan's craving to see the game's best go for birdie or better on every hole, with no regard for the consequences. The loudest cheer Duval earned all weekend came on the par-5 9th, when, 285 yards from a green fronted by a pond, he pulled his driver out of the bag. That he proceeded to chunk the shot into the water mattered not a bit, which Duval made perfectly clear by shrugging insouciantly and saying, "Oh, well." Likewise, the most electricity generated by the gallery (a boisterous 15,000 over two days) came on the dogleg 338-yard par-4 15th, which Woods drove by carrying a pond that runs the length of the fairway. Why chance it? "Why not?" Tiger replied.
The only thing the Skins Game alters more dramatically than the players' strategy is their demeanor. Lehman's grim determination, Woods's game face and Duval's scowl were all given a much-needed weekend off at Rancho La Quinta Country Club. Depending on the mix of players, all the yukking the Skins encourages can sometimes seem forced, but this year's foursome had the right chemistry and displayed genuine camaraderie, which was demonstrated at the par-5 5th. Woods was bummed to find that the tees were up and his advantage reduced, so he grabbed one of the markers and sprinted toward the back of the tee block with Lehman hot in pursuit, wielding his driver with mock malice. Once order was restored, O'Meara led off and crunched a 310-yard drive, only to have Woods's ball take an aerial photo as it flew over, settling some 50 yards past. Woods then playfully stared O'Meara down, while Duval whispered a few sweet nothings in O'Meara's ear. In a game where failure to say "nice shot" can be construed as gamesmanship, it's good to see the players woof occasionally. Isn't that what you're supposed to do after a 360-yard drive? There was also some good shtick on the par-3 8th hole, which carried four skins worth $100,000. Woods and Duval both missed the green, creating a putting contest between Lehman and O'Meara. After rapping in his 22-footer for birdie, Lehman exhorted the gallery to do the wave. Suddenly O'Meara's new biggest fans, Duval and Woods, jockeyed with him over his ball marker, all three eyeing the 10-footer's break. When O'Meara missed, Lehman thanked him sweetly with a hug.
That's nothing compared to the love affair between golf fans and the Skins Game. Last year Woods made his Skins debut in what was hyped as a high-noon showdown with John Daly, and fans across the land spooned it up to the tune of a 7.1 television rating, which surpassed any other Saturday golf coverage in 1996, including the usually unbeatable Masters. This year's Skins again was a TV hit—the telecast had overnight ratings of 5.2 on Saturday and 4.6 on Sunday—and the gallery ranked with last year's as the biggest in the event's history. You have to go back to the glory years of the mid-'80s to find this kind of interest.
The Skins Game burst onto the scene in 1983 on the strength of the rivalry among the aging but still virile Big Three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and the young gun, Tom Watson. The then extravagant purse of $360,000 provided sex appeal, but what really captured the fans' imagination was the intimacy of the showdowns. Living rooms were invaded by the heavy breathing of players who cracked wise but acutely felt the strain of the format, where the goal was not to outfox the course but to step on the neck of the other guy. By 1988, though, the Skins had lost its sizzle, and for the better part of the last decade it has coasted on name recognition and a plum time slot. More damning than losing the charisma of the Big Three or the shock value of the money (since '83 the Tour's prize money has more than quadrupled while the Skins' purse hasn't even doubled) was the fact that the Skins simply stopped mattering. Nothing was being settled under the desert sun anymore.
Woods has changed all that, and the Skins Game will continue to prosper as long as he's willing to be part of the foursome. "With Tiger coming on the scene, there's no question that the feeling has come back to what it was originally," says O'Meara. The players have always said the Skins Game is not about the money, but these days they actually mean it. Says Woods, a multinational corporation unto himself, "I don't think adding more to the purse would add any more drama. We're not out there for the money anyway. It's more ego than anything else." Especially for the other guys.
Lehman is a case in point. Last year's player of the year on the Tour is one of the few top golfers unwilling to concede Woods's superiority, even though he helped launch the juggernaut by bowing to Woods in a playoff at the season-opening Mercedes Championships. Having failed to win a Tour event in a season for the first time since '93, Lehman came to La Quinta looking to make a statement. "I didn't get the results I wanted this year, and a lot of guys played great and got the attention," Lehman said when the Skins Game was over, "but I'm not ready to be called a second-tier player. You know when Tiger tees it up, he doesn't want to finish second to anybody. I definitely picked up on that these last two days. It pumped me up."