Feasting on The Skins Game

Popular made-for-TV event thrived in Coachella Valley

As usual, there will be plenty of football served up on Thanksgiving weekend, but for the fifth consecutive year there will be no Skins Game to go with the leftover turkey.

The Skins Game became a holiday tradition during its meteoric 26-year run, the last 23 played at six courses scattered across the Coachella Valley in the California Desert near Palm Springs.

The event became an instant sensation in 1983, when International Golf Management and NBC Sports lined up Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson to play the inaugural event at Desert Highlands Country Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.

By 2009, with the world-wide economic downturn was in full-swing, title sponsor LG Electronics of South Korea decided not to renew its contract and the Skins Game became a thing of the past.

“I don’t think it went wrong, it got bypassed,” said Alastair Johnston, vice chairman at IMG, who delivered “The Big Three” plus Watson to a national television audience for the inaugural Skins Game.

“When the money didn’t become competitive, when the ‘Silly Season’ became overburdened, when golf was on television 52 weeks, it wasn’t something special. There was no point of distinction.”

Television ratings for the Skins Game went through the roof in the early years because all the big-name players in the game wanted in to play for the $1-million in prize money, since purses had not yet skyrocketed.

Somebody said that watching Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Watson in the first year was like watching Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley playing a game of H-O-R-S-E.

No offense, but watching Stephen Ames (twice), K.J. Choi and Fred Funk win in what turned out to be the last four years of the Skins Game wasn’t exactly the same.

Swashbuckling Lee Trevino, perhaps the most perfect player for the event since the golfers were miked, provided the signature moment of the Skins Game when he made the only hole in one in the event’s history in 1987 on the island green at the 17th hole of the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta.

Trevino, who did a victory lap on the tee before jumping in the arms of caddie Herman Mitchell, said of the shot: “It looked like a Rembrandt.”

The big names no longer came because the money didn’t mean as much, with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson staying home after 2005, so TV ratings dropped dramatically and the handwriting was on the wall.

But what fun it was while it lasted.

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