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If that was the future of professional golf that peeked out from behind the designer rocks and expensive cactus of the Arizona desert for two strange days last week, then it took The Past to make it work. It took an Arnold Palmer and a Gary Player. Senior citizens. Relics of other days. But, oh, what life they pumped into a glorified TV exhibition called The Skins Game. The event had nothing to do with topless dancers. What it had to do with was Arnie rolling in a 40-foot putt for $100,000 as if he were back in Augusta or somewhere and Gary rapping in the fastest four-foot putt in history for $150,000, and then both of them agreeing with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson that the four of them ought to do this sort of thing more often.
After 18 holes of golf on the elevated plains of the Desert Highlands course north of Scottsdale on Saturday and Sunday, the statistics were these: Player won a total of $170,000, Palmer came away with $140,000. Nicklaus collected $40,000 and Watson was left with a paltry $10,000, all for not gambling. It was a game without any risk to the players; they were competing for somebody else's money—$360,000 in all. So what was it? A happening? A party? A sitcom? More important, was it a trend?
Well, it was all of these things, but mainly it was a fascinating competition. Many golfers enjoy a friendly skins game when they're out playing with their buddies. The way it works is that each hole is worth a skin, an agreed-upon unit, which the winner of the hole collects. If the players tie, the skin is carried over to the next hole, and so on until one player wins a hole. Although the skins for this game were a few factors removed from an ordinary club round, no one was reaching into his pocket to pay up. And once won, the money was safe: it couldn't be lost on a later hole. The two moments of high drama came on those "carry-over" holes where the money doubled, tripled, quadrupled and quintupled after holes were halved on a two-tie, all-tie basis.
The rules and format made this four-man event drastically different from your basic Phoenix Open. First, you had to be an immortal to get invited. This was what qualified Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Watson, who hold 44 major championships among them, over any Dave Eichelberger of your choice. They were asked, how would you like to play for $360,000 at $10,000 a hole for the first six holes, at $20,000 a hole for the next six, then $30,000 for the last six?
Arnold, Gary and Tom leaped at the opportunity, and Jack said fine, if you play it on one of my new courses where we can get television exposure and sell $300,000 residential lots, Agreed. It didn't matter that Desert Highlands lacked a pro shop, a clubhouse and all the other amenities of a country club development. Next came the question of a date. It couldn't conflict with a PGA Tour event, and the competitors didn't wish it to, for the tour was why they all had become immortals in the first place. Finally, it had to get itself on TV. NBC took the show, up against football as it was, because the sponsors who put up the prize money also put up the production money and "delivered the package" to the network.
Taking this gamble were Don Ohlmeyer, a former sports executive at both ABC and NBC, and Trans World International, a subsidiary of Mark McCormack's International Management Group, which also happens to handle Palmer and Player along with assorted other legends in assorted other sports.
The favorites were Watson, the youngest, strongest and most recently successful, and Nicklaus, the course architect with the most cactus knowledge. That the two old guys. Palmer, 54, and Player, 48, made off with most of the cheese only proves that in "skins"—or "cats," as they were once called—anything can happen on a single hole.
The players were miked for television, and the competition started off on Saturday with the four men trying to be comedians for the audience. Cheery banter accompanied them over the first few holes as Watson birdied the 1st for $10,000, Player won $10,000 at the 2nd with a par 5, Nicklaus rolled in a 20-foot birdie at the 3rd for $10,000 and Player won another 10 grand with a birdie at the 4th. They halved the 5th hole. At this point, Palmer was skinless, and he was also hard to find out there in the rocks, sand and scrubby bushes.
"I was thinking about sending somebody off for a bottle of Scotch," Arnold said later. "I'd come from Bay Hill [in Orlando], and the guys I play with down there had hit me for $400 in my normal game. I'm sure they were watching TV, rooting for me to get home soon so they could rob me again."
But the next two holes "saved" Saturday for both Palmer and the telecast. He scrapped out a par 4 at the 6th to win $20,000 as the others double-bogeyed. Then came the par-3 7th, the first of the $20,000 holes. Palmer knocked in a 25-foot birdie there and went into his first dance act. In two holes he had won $40,000, and he hadn't been near the golf course for the previous five holes.