MURRIETA, Calif. — I don't know about you, but where I came from, when you put an "x" on your golf scorecard, that meant no score on the hole. It usually came when you were already 11 over par and had not gotten very far off the tee yet.
Well, they played a little variation of tournament golf down here over the weekend called the Skins Game, pitting the world's greatest golfers against one another, and I counted 38 "x's" on the scorecards. I'm not sure any of these guys broke 80. Which is all right. Except these guys were playing for $450,000. I can remember when you could buy Rhode Island for that.
The Skins Game is the brainchild of the TV producer Don Ohlmeyer. It's what we used to call "one low ball" back in the old days at Fox Hills. Alternate title: one-tie, all-tie. Or "carry-overs."
We used to play this in my day with the four worst players in the world. And, at stake was only $2 for each nine holes and another $2 overall. But we used to rely on one of the four of us tying the low ball on every hole. Usually, all this required was an 8--a 9 if you got a stroke.
You have to remember, the four guys playing this game down at Jack Nicklaus' Bear Creek course are the cream of world golf, representing something like 200 tournaments won worldwide among them.
So, a lot of us figured it would take an eagle--at least--to win a hole. When you've got Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller going at one another, you figure that even an eagle might not make it. You figured somebody in that group would get a birdie on every hole, and maybe all of them would.
Well, you can forget the eagles. There wasn't a single one in the tournament. There weren't that many birdies, to tell you the truth. A guy with a 20-handicap might have had a great shot at the money in this tournament.
They decided the winner in the good old American way in this tourney--on money won. That would be Frank Urban Zoeller, who walked off with $255,000 after winning only three holes. That's because this thing has elements of a crapshoot in it, too.
I'm not sure Frank U. Zoeller would have made the cut in a regular tour tournament playing the way he did. He had a shutout going when he came up to hole No. 12 Sunday. This is kind of an overmatched little par 3 on the backside, and three of the four golfers made it on the green in a cluster of balls about 12 feet from the hole. Fuzzy Zoeller was inside the other two--Watson and Nicklaus--by a matter of inches. It meant he got to putt last.
In golf, that's like getting a look at the other fellows' cards. Fuzzy watched bemusedly as Nicklaus and Watson managed to miss their birdie putts on both sides of the hole. Fuzzy decided from that that the putt was straight. So it was.
So, after playing public-park golf for 11 holes in a row, he rolled in a putt that had been put on tracks for him. Presto! $150,000. It was like winning a lottery.
Fuzzy went back to playing driving-range golf for a few holes ("I was hitting the ball sideways," he admitted in the press room later), but on hole No. 15, the ante per hole had gone up to $35,000 and there was 70 grand in the pot when Fuzzy slid a long putt in the side door. But Nicklaus and Watson had a chance to tie him and boost the carry-over with short putts.
When Watson missed, Nicklaus worried his 3-footer into a 40-footer by pacing, measuring, looking skyward. Finally, he asked his caddy.
Now, Jack Nicklaus' caddy was Jack Nicklaus Jr. But none of us who follow golf have ever been able to figure out why a player who has been playing for a living for more than 40 years and who must have seen every kind of putt that's ever been hit on six continents would need to ask anyone how to hit a ball. Ben Hogan never asked a caddy anything on a course but what time it was and whether he had a match.
When Jack Nicklaus missed that putt, Fuzzy Zoeller rushed over to plant a kiss on his lips. He should have. I know 40 guys at Riviera who would have made that putt even with their own money at stake and not Toyota's.
The best bet with four of history's best golfers in the hunt is that you might get a tie on 17 out of the 18 holes. When, with no eagles, you wondered how these guys managed to tie only half the holes played, you had to tell yourself that the art of match play has disappeared from the American golf scene. You would have needed more than a birdie or a par to keep Walter Hagen from tying you on a hole. And here you had, presumably, three Walter Hagens challenging each birdie (or par) on a hole.
I think these Americans better stick to medal play. And, if you have to take a poll to line up a putt, you might be in the wrong business.
Of course, I was enormously encouraged by Arnold Palmer on one hole. He left a ball in a sand trap on one shot--and then flew it clear across the green on his next shot. He can get in our foursome any time if he can do that repeatedly. That's our kind of golf. On reflection, that's what these four were playing all weekend. I know some guys who would be waiting for them on the tee at Riv right now. I mean, these guys got a quarter-mil, one hundred thou and 80 thou on them. And all you got to beat to take it away from them is a net birdie. They'd go home in a barrel if my crowd got at them. By bus.