December 08, 1997

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

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."

And how does it feel to put Woods in his place, at least for one
weekend? "It's satisfying," Lehman said. He paused before going
on. "How should I say this? You want the other players to
respect you. When you play against the best, it's good to give
them a good thumping once in a while. When you do it on a stage
this big, let's face it, it's that much sweeter."

Lehman was so persuasive that when he rolled in a 10-foot birdie
putt at the 18th to top O'Meara's gimme and force the playoff
(and shoot 29 on the back side), Woods and Duval salaamed him
from the other side of the green. That's what the Skins Game, at
its best, is all about: good golf, good cheer and the
opportunity to give Woods a little religion.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Lehman partially made up for a winless '97 by shooting 61 and winning nine straight skins. [Tom Lehman playing golf] PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK TV ratings jumped when Woods was added to the lineup in '96 and were up there again this year. [Tiger Woods jumping] PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK O'Meara (left), Duval (in shades) and Woods provided the right chemistry. [Mark O'Meara, David Duval, and Tiger Woods]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)