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.
They all halved the 8th hole with pars, and Nicklaus and Watson halved the 9th with birdies. Tom was destined to make four birdies during the 18 holes, but three of them wouldn't get him a dime.
"All of the timing in my career hasn't been perfect." Watson said with a smile.
Sunday's nine holes began with halves by Watson and Player on 10 and 11, where Palmer found his second shot up against a small cactus bush, a sight that must have given hope to every duck-hook specialist watching on TV or in the invited gallery of about 1,000.
Arnold at first tried to fasten his bag cover around his bright green Ultrasuede rear end to keep from getting thorned when he addressed the ball, but this didn't work. He settled on a backward lefthanded one-iron. "Got it out of there pretty good." Palmer said, meaning he "advanced" it somewhat.
Luckily for him, the hole was halved, so the stakes at the par-3 12th had quintupled to $100,000. Here Palmer hit one of his few greens in regulation, and he was "his" distance away, about 40 feet. Then in true "Go get 'em, Arnie" fashion, he hit the putt, trying, in his words, "to keep it just outside the right edge." The ball struck the cup, zipped around the edge and dived into the darkness for the $100,000. Dance act, part II.
Nicklaus had a birdie putt of about 20 feet that would have tied Palmer on the hole, and he took his time with it.
"After all these years," Nicklaus said to Palmer after Arnold had rolled in the monster. Then he added, "I know you like to play fast, but you don't mind if I look this over, do you?"
When Jack's putt barely stayed out, Arnold was the happiest he'd been in 20 years. Palmer at that point had $140,000 for having sunk two long putts in 12 holes. He was so happy, he said later, "I forgot to hit another golf shot." Indeed, Palmer's next shot was a duck hook off the 13th tee. Ben Crenshaw, doing television commentary, said, "I can explain that shot. Arnold just moved his wallet to his other pocket. What happened was the result of right-side overload."
The next three holes were halved. At 16, a carry-over worth $120,000. Nicklaus nearly holed a 90-footer for birdie, and was left with four feet for par. Watson hit an 80-foot wedge shot to within four inches, and Player, just off the green to the right, chipped to within about eight inches. Player and Watson holed their short putts and Nicklaus picked up. Much later, however, after the game was over and nearly everyone had departed the premises, Dave Anderson, the columnist for The New York Times, happened to walk outside the press tent for a moment and came upon the group of Watson, Nicklaus, Player and Joseph P. Dey Jr., the former United States Golf Association director who had refereed the round. Anderson reported that Watson confronted Player, accusing him of improving his lie by pulling out a rooted leaf which was resting on his ball before he hit that wedge. Anderson overheard Watson saying, "I'm accusing you, Gary.... You can't do that.... I'm tired of this.... I wasn't watching you, but I saw it."
Neither Nicklaus nor Watson would comment later, but Player told Anderson, "Tom thought that I'd moved a leaf that I shouldn't have, but I told him I didn't and he accepted that. And that's the way we left it."
The fact that Watson had won only $10,000 may have affected his mood, because such an invocation of the Rules of Golf in a skins game seems almost funny. Everyone knows in a real skins game anything goes, including roots.
So they moved on to the par-5 17th with $150,000 riding on it. Jack was just off the green in two, but failed to get down in two from there, and this opened the door for Player. Earlier, back out in the fairway, Player had hit one of those sand-wedge approaches that make him start to walk with confidence before the ball lands. It had damn near landed in the cup, stopping four feet past the flag.
"Gary wanted to run up there and putt it before any of us could say anything," Nicklaus said. "It was like he came out of starting blocks."
That wedge shot and putt "won" the overall competition for the little South African, if it can be said there was a winner. Player did shoot the lowest back nine, a three-under 33, and the lowest 18, a two-under 70. But he wasn't going to count it as his 124th worldwide victory.
Nicklaus salvaged something for himself by recovering from a topped fairway wood on the par-5 18th with a nice seven-iron and a 10-foot birdie pull to take the last skin, which was worth $30,000. But the curtain had half dropped after Arnold's long putt at the 12th, and it had closed completely after Gary's nervous tap-in on the 17th.
There will be more of this sort of thing in the future. Desert Highlands has an option to host The Skins Game again next year, perhaps with the same foursome—maybe with one substitute or one additional player who has a name that sounds like Ballesteros. The rules on how many roots may be moved will be more explicit. There is talk of taking it on the road to Europe and Japan.
"If we do it too often, we'll have a tired vaudeville act," Nicklaus said, rightly. "Once a year might be enough. We need some variety in pro golf. I think the fans appreciate it."
Not as much as a golfer playing for somebody else's money, however.
With just 1,000 spectators, Palmer endangered only himself with his "fore, left" game.
Nicklaus tried giving the ball pointers Saturday. By Sunday he had totally flipped.
Except for the first one, all of Watson's crucial putts amounted to halves, not holes.
Unable to fashion a fanny cover, Palmer hit backwards at 11.