So this is what it looks like when a turkey takes its last gasp.
No, we're not talking about a Thanksgiving entree, 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
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 blase 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
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 cofounder Barry Frank, "except the Masters
runs until 7 p.m., when there are simply more people watching TV."
Gerber's and Frank's zeal is understandable. Not since the
Weekend at Bernie's movies have two guys had so much success
dressing up a corpse and trotting it out for public consumption.
But these guys must use a pencil with an eraser to write down
their golf scores, because they're fudging these numbers. The
Skins' ratings have dropped over the past few years, as the act
has gotten stale. Still, it's no mystery why it remains
important to the players, or at least to their agents. "Being
chosen for the Skins Game is an acknowledgment that you are one
of the best players in the world," says Pavin. "It's quite an
honor, from that standpoint."
Adds Frank, "It's four individuals getting five hours of
exposure on one of the most heavily watched golf events of the
year. You can imagine what that means to the player's sponsors,
what with the hats, the bags, the clubs...." And here Frank's
voice trails off dreamily. Such flesh peddling once moved former
USGA honcho Frank Hannigan to label the Skins Game "pornographic."
The most painful part of the Skins Game is watching the players
try to yuk it up for the cameras. With all the phony
backslapping going on it's amazing no lumbar disks were exploded.
"Oh, yeah, we are definitely aware we're wearing microphones,"
As such, it's a wonderful opportunity to project a good-guy
image. "It's important because the fans at home can hear you
talking and see what you're really like," says Pavin.
Jacobsen's patter was as canned as a late-night talk-show host's
monologue (Chevy Chase springs to mind), and no wonder. He was
given a mandate to try to be funny. "An event like this needs
personality," Gerber said on the eve of the Skins, "and that's
why Peter is so important."
Jacobsen, who has commented on nine Skins Games over the years
in his guise as a broadcaster, tried mightily to breathe some
life into the proceedings, but he was doomed from the beginning.
Look what he had to work with. Pavin at times showed a light
touch, but Watson and Couples were nothing but dead weight. On
Saturday, Watson said, "The best line of the day was when Corey
chipped in and Freddie said, 'Does that mean the hole is over?'"
Bah duh boom. The Skins Game is the only tournament in golf that
needs a laugh track.
"What you have to remember," says Frank, breaking into his best
showbiz smile, "is that it's not just a tournament, it's a show.
It's about having some fun. It's not about the rhythms of the
game, it's not played on some citadel of golf. It is what it is."
But what is it? Frank ought to be able to figure out what the
Skins needs, considering that he helped dream up such trash
sport staples as American Gladiators, Survival of the Fittest
and The Superstars.
The trouble with the Skins Game is not that it strays from golf
tradition, but rather that it does not go far enough. Why not
move the tournament--sorry, the show--from Las Vegas Lite, Palm
Springs, to the real Sin City? That would add some juice. The
poetic waxing of Vin Scully could be dumped for, say, Bob Saget.
Skins Game pom-pom girls could be added, in slinky outfits (by
Ashworth, of course). Once the Skins Game stops trying to pass
itself off as golf, the possibilities are limitless.
With some bold changes, this thing may actually fly. We can only
hope, because right now the Skins Game is for the birds.