No one keeps track of these things, but until last Sunday there had probably never been a truly poignant moment in the nine-year history of the Skins Game.
It wasn't much—Tour rookie John Daly reaching out and patting Jack Nicklaus on the arm near the end of the two-day, 18-hole event. But it was the closest that television's richest game show had come to real feeling since Arnold Palmer had to play a ball that had settled precariously against a cactus bush in the first Skins Game.
No, sentiment does not often visit the Skins Game, which consists, in essence, of four rich pros feigning camaraderie while competing for ghastly amounts of cash. The Skins Game is shotgun mikes, back-pocket transmitters and a caravan of technicians in carts. It is the knicker-clad Payne Stewart, a Skins rookie and this year's winner, sinking a four-foot putt for $260,000 and saying, "Your swing gets a little looser after you win a skin, doesn't it?"
But the Skins Game—make no mistake, the bottom line here is money—has always milked a second theme: the public's fascination with Nicklaus. The Golden Bear has played in every Skins Game, and until now only Palmer had been able to play out of Nicklaus's shadow. But on Sunday, the 51-year-old Nicklaus left La Quinta, Calif., with no prize money and with his massive shadow somewhat diminished.
ABC commentator Vin Scully described it as a "passing of the baton," but Nicklaus didn't pass this baton—Daly grabbed it. Ever since Daly, 25, a longtime resident of Dardanelle, Ark., got his first Tour win at the PGA Championship in August with a stunning exhibition of smash-mouth golf, he has been riding a whirlwind of publicity. Then his third-place finish at the Tour Championship in November established him as something more than a Hash in the pan. Even with his wildly erratic play in the Grand Slam of Golf, a four-man, 36-hole exhibition held recently in Hawaii, Daly confirmed his crowd appeal. But nothing seals celebrity like success in a funny-money event such as the Skins—this year it was worth $540,000—and Daly is the youngest player and the only Tour rookie ever invited.
"Everything's happened so fast," he said Sunday, pondering his Skins Game bounty of $160,000 and three automobiles valued at more than $60,000. "A year ago, I was right here at Tour School. Grinding it out, trying to get my card."
Mind you, Daly did not play the weekend's best golf. Nervous at the start of the first nine holes, which were played last Saturday morning, he hit several balls into or over spectators on the PGA West Stadium Course, sending one woman to the hospital and convincing other fans that Daly is best viewed from behind.
But the Skins Game is not about good golf; it's about opportunistic golf. This year, the first six holes were worth $20,000 each, the middle six $30,000 each and the final six $40,000 each. To win a "skin," a player has to win a hole outright; otherwise, the money is carried over to the next hole, multiplying like a runaway adding machine until a hole is won.
"It's a good format for me," says Daly. "You can get away with a high number on a hole and still win big money."
Especially if you can drive your ball prodigious distances. On the par-5 5th hole on Saturday, Daly started his fans whooping with a 330-yard belt off the tee. He then knocked a four-iron into the gallery to the right of the green, chipped to two feet and tapped in for a birdie and the first skin of the day, worth $100,000. He won another $20,000, a Toyota and a Lexus (the winner of each par-3 hole was also awarded a car; one of these two cars was carried over from an earlier hole) when he was the only player to carry the water on the 255-yard 6th—a feat in itself, considering the cold, cutting wind that gusted as high as 45 mph and stirred up enough desert dust to shroud the nearby mountains.
Holes 7 through 9 were halved, so Daly finished the day as the only money winner and the clear crowd favorite. Said Nicklaus, "This young man has sort of stolen the show."
Not that anyone will mistake Daly for a showman like Chi Chi Rodriguez or for a wisecracker/needler like Fuzzy Zoeller or Lee Trevino. Daly's appeal lies more in his rawness, the rough edges that remain from his struggles on the African and Ben Hogan tours, golf's minor leagues. His new clothes—courtesy of one of his post-PGA title endorsement deals—don't flatter him, and his hair is a little long and unruly. He plays bare-armed in raw weather, saying he can't swing well in a sweater. Asked if he lifts weights, Daly said, "With this gut? Nuuuuuuuuu."
But Daly is no bumpkin. On the 3rd tee Saturday, he said, "I think it's time to pump up, y'all," and bent over to push the inflator buttons on his golf shoes. The flagrant commercial plug was broadcast nationally, and the spectators at the tee ate it up, erupting when Daly then stepped up and creamed his drive. A sign in the gallery read BOOM. Another displayed Daly's mid-swing mantra, KILL.
Clearly, if Daly plays well in seasons to come, he'll become a Skins regular, maybe even—dare we say it?—Nicklaus's replacement. What other player has the "hang time" that his tee shots clocked? (His 7.2-second 2nd-hole tee shot on Saturday was half a second better than Stewart's.) Who else practices barefoot place-kicking, just in case an NFL team needs someone at midseason?
Of course, the foolproof way to get invited back to a Skins Game is to win the most money and thus qualify to return as defending champ. That was the approach Stewart took on Sunday, figuring, no doubt, that his canary-yellow plus fours and labored repartee were no match for the show that the less-than-sartorially correct Daly was putting on with his clubs.
Stewart made his bid on number 14, a par-4 running 390 yards along a waste bunker to a green tucked into a condominium cluster. The hole was worth a record $260,000—a fact announced to the players by a fan at the tee, who yelled, "Biggest skin ever, guys. Good luck!"
From the side of the fairway, 136 yards out, Stewart hit a nine-iron to within four feet of the pin, and when Nicklaus, Daly and two-time defending Skins champ Curtis Strange missed birdie putts—Strange's nine-footer slid agonizingly past the edge of the cup—Stewart cupped his for the biggest check of his career. "I thought I was going to have to make that putt for a halve," he said, "but when they all missed, I had a free run at it."
With four holes left, only Daly had a chance to match Stewart's total, and even then only by winning all of the remaining skins. That possibility died when both Daly and Stewart rolled into the water from the island green at the par-3 17th and Strange rolled in a 12-footer for birdie, $120,000 and two cars. For Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion whose game has been hampered since July by a mysterious equilibrium disorder, the lucrative skin was a windfall. "No matter how you play," he said, "you always seem to get a chance or two in 18. You'd better take advantage."
No one knows that better than Nicklaus, but he made only one birdie over the weekend and picked his ball up twice. Forced out of Friday's pro-am by back spasms, he seemed to be swinging cautiously—or maybe it just looked that way because Daly was smacking his ball 50 or 60 yards past Nicklaus's on almost every hole. When Nicklaus missed a five-foot birdie putt for $40,000 at number 18, wasting an exquisite downwind eight-iron over the water, he finally showed his frustration. "Just like all the others," Nicklaus muttered as he threw a cup of ice at a trash can. "Low and left."
That set the stage for the moment of poignancy. Faced with a flier lie from the rough on number 10, the first hole of the sudden-death playoff for the skin no one had picked up on 18, Nicklaus hit what he thought was a perfect two-iron, only to have it splash down short of the rocks. When the hole was over, he and Stewart had been eliminated from the competition while Daly and Strange went on to play another sudden-death hole at 17, where Daly won the last skin, worth $40,000 and yet another car.
But first, Daly stopped to shake Nicklaus's hand and give him an encouraging pat on the arm. "Playing with Jack is probably the highlight of my life," he said afterward. "There's never going to be another Jack Nicklaus."
That's true, but to Nicklaus—who has gallantly endured nearly four months of reporters' asking him to explain how Daly can hit the ball so far—the moment must have had the feel of a denouement. For the first time, someone billed as "the next Nicklaus" had actually stolen his thunder.
For that alone, this Skins Game possessed more than the usual cash grab. It also had heart.