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The Skins Game came to the California desert last week for a
face-lift, a tummy tuck, liposuction--the full Ivana. Desperate
to return to its mid-'80s prime, the Skins even brought in
golf's top cosmetologist, Tiger Woods, to work his makeover
magic. Woods, along with handpicked foil John Daly, did succeed
in stretching out a few new wrinkles and more than doubled a
viewing audience that had sunk to an alltime low a year ago. But
in the end, no one could keep this 14-year-old fossil from
showing its age.

By the time the proceedings ended on Sunday at Rancho La Quinta
Country Club, a generic layout in the nation's geriatric golf
belt near Palm Springs, any sense of significance had
evaporated. Yes, Fred Couples found a way to win yet another
off-season event by earning $280,000. Tom Watson demonstrated
his still formidable skill at 47 by playing the best golf in the
foursome and taking home $220,000. Woods displayed occasional
brilliance, but it was overshadowed by some poor timing that
resulted in only two skins and $40,000. Daly proved that even if
he isn't anywhere near the best player around--he didn't win a
skin--he can still claim to be the longest. Yet even as the
players all asked to be invited back, the winner admitted that
nothing that had happened over the two days of competition meant
very much. "I might not be using the right words, but it's not
the greatest feat in the world," Couples said of his second
straight Skins victory.

Winning the Skins Game has never meant much, but it used to mean
more. The original allure was that the format created an
exclusive, albeit artificial, arena for the game's top players,
a place where they could put their egos and reputations on the
line. By miking the golfers, TV gave viewers their first chance
to hear Jack Nicklaus--once again doing battle with Arnold
Palmer or Gary Player or Watson--calm his nerves by taking deep
breaths. Today's Skins Game is no longer novel, having been
diluted by countless Silly Season derivatives. Whereas an
emotional Nicklaus threw his putter into the air as if he had
just won a major after making a putt for $240,000 on the final
hole in 1984, Couples spread his arms and shrugged when he snuck
in an eight-footer on the 15th hole on Sunday to win the same

Just as reputations are no longer at stake in the Skins Game,
the monetary stakes have lost their impact too. In an age of
$300,000 appearance fees--the amount Woods received to play in
the recent Australian Open--the $540,000 the Skins Game offers
barely covers the jet-fuel bill of today's superstar. The PGA
Tour's prize money has quadrupled since 1983, yet the purse at
the Skins Game, which started at $360,000, has gone up a mere
50%. Sad to say, but judging by the soundtrack of the last
several Skins, the money no longer induces heavy breathing.

Frankly, were it not for Woods, who was invited to play shortly
after he won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur and turned pro,
the Skins Game itself would be barely breathing. With an
opportunity to get an intimate view of the charismatic but
elusive Tiger, as well as see him take on Daly in a head-to-head
distance duel, America watched in record numbers. Saturday's
telecast of the first nine holes received an 8.2 rating and 19
share, reaching about eight million homes and surpassing the
previous Skins Game high of 7.0, set in 1986. The numbers were
good news to the event's organizers, who had seen the ratings
shrink to 4.0 and a nine share in 1995. On Sunday this year's
telecast had a 6.1 rating and 12 share.

With galleries in excess of 9,500 on Saturday, the largest at
the Skins since '86, the atmosphere on the 1st tee was charged.
Feeding the hype, officials painted yardage grids on several of
Rancho La Quinta's wider fairways so that blimp-mounted cameras
could instantly record the cannon shots of Daly and Woods,
although during the days leading up to the event Woods was
determined not to participate in the Who's longest? game. "The
one thing we talked about was for Tiger not to get into a
driving contest," said his coach, Butch Harmon. That philosophy
seemed to fly out the window on the 1st hole. After Daly blasted
his opening tee shot 340 yards down the middle--22 yards past
Woods's ball--Tiger playfully gripped Daly's arm and said, "Man,
that was a bomb," and then purposefully cranked out tee shots
that averaged 353.3 yards the next three times he used his
driver, on the 4th, 5th and 9th holes. Still, Daly outdrove
Woods on two of those three.

Daly had altered his public stance from saying that he was
looking forward to the distance showdown to predicting that
"Tiger Woods is going to be past me," but he clearly was
interested in the outcome. On the 586-yard 5th, where Woods
ripped a drive of 377 yards, Daly passed him with an immense
380-yarder. When a referee, not taking into account the angle of
the doglegged fairway, initially ruled that Daly was away, Daly
responded, "No f------ way," prompting a reversal.

From there the duel cooled, with Woods following his game plan
by frequently hitting a 15-degree driving iron off the tee while
Daly snap-hooked several drivers into the rough, until the
577-yard 17th, a dead flat hole. Woods drilled his drive 322
yards. Daly caught his solid too, and his ball stopped less than
a yard short of Woods's. For the moment those drives settled the
issue of who is longest. "The 17th was the best test, so it's a
tie," said Woods, with Daly nodding his assent.

It was that kind of Skins Game. Despite a terrific mix of
talent, there was a lack of chemistry among the participants.
The likable Couples, for example, is uncomfortable with the
wiseacre byplay that television producers encourage when the
players are miked. "I really don't like to needle people," he
says. "What am I going to say that's going to bother Tom Watson?
I'm afraid John Daly will beat me up if I say anything to him. I
have another 10 years with Tiger, so I'm going to leave him

Daly intentionally knocked over Watson's bag on the driving
range to draw a laugh from the crowd but during play was
detached and uncommunicative. When Daly got off to a poor start
during the second nine, which began early Sunday morning, ABC
course reporter Mark Rolfing gingerly asked, "You feeling all
right, John?" Daly vacantly answered, "I don't know.... I'm just
kind of hanging around right now." It was not a Skins Game
moment. As one spectator dryly observed, "I don't think John is
a morning person."

Sensing that there would be a dearth of interaction, and having
seen how Fuzzy Zoeller and Lee Trevino lifted Skins Games of the
past, Watson did his best to pick up the slack. Before the
event, he set himself up as the beleaguered old-timer with no
chance, "an old dog looking for a bone," he said. He primed the
Woods-Daly pump by recounting how as a boy he had gone to see
former long-drive king George Bayer play, only to be
disappointed when the 6'6" Bayer hit nothing but controlled
fades. "He hit this Jane Fonda--it started out left and wound up
right," said Watson, who could have been describing his own
political evolution. Turning to Woods and Daly, Watson said,
"I'm going to feel like Linda Ronstadt or Roy Orbison. You know,
Blue Bayou. You guys are going to blow it by me."

On the course Watson applied the soft needle, loudly urging
Woods and Daly to hit drivers on the tightest holes, expressing
doubt about Couples's read on a putt and once telling Woods to
zip up his fly. Such schtick is not a part of Watson's normal
routine, but had he not played out of character for the good of
the telecast, this would have been the dullest Skins Game ever.

Some expected Woods, as the focus of the most attention, to
liven things up, but his situation is complicated. Woods is
acutely aware that his words and actions are scrutinized by his
peers and the public, often critically, and is fearful of coming
off as a 20-year-old with a swollen head. He has decided to show
his gregarious streak only to family and friends, and allow his
performance on the course to speak for itself. Woods refrained
from playing to the crowd or the television audience, deferring
to three players who have won 11 major championships among them.
"Tiger took part, but he wasn't going to be the show," said his
caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan. "That was because of who he was
with. He's going to show Tom Watson respect because that's
what's proper."

Although he was low-key, Woods was not uncomfortable. Quite the
contrary, he had dreamed of playing in the Skins Game ever since
he saw the first one when he was seven. "I'm having a blast," he
said on Saturday. "This is like a high school match. There are
only four guys playing, and it's only nine holes a day."

For Woods, whose financial future should be secure, money was
not the object of his first Skins Game. Although he made a
five-foot putt for birdie to keep Watson from winning $120,000
on the 12th hole, Woods said he was not aware of how much the
hole was worth, just as he didn't know that his 12-footer for
birdie on the first playoff hole, which lipped out, would have
won him the same amount. "All I wanted to do was win the holes
and beat these guys," said Woods, who isn't self-conscious about
saying that he tries to win every event he enters. "My goal was
basically to win all the skins."

If those who run the Skins Game have anything to say about it,
he'll get plenty more chances. While they've learned that even
Woods won't be able to give their timeworn event a full Ivana,
the facials he might apply to future competitions could be
highly rejuvenating.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Watson (left) appeared to be uncomfortable playing the clown, while Daly blew hot and cold. [Tom Watson and John Daly]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK A number of measures were taken to highlight the length of Woods (left) and Daly. [Tiger Woods; John Daly and caddie golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Couples, the king of the Silly Season, slipped in as the winner. [Fred Couples playing golf]