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THE SKINS GAME : Golfing's Giveaway Is Big Hit : Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Zoeller Meet at PGA West

November 29, 1986|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

The Skins Game isn't a golf tournament, it's a game show.

When it comes to you from the new PGA West Stadium course in La Quinta, Calif., live on Saturday, tape-delayed on Sunday, Vin Scully will be the host. Why not Pat Sajak of "Wheel of Fortune"?

Vanna White could walk along behind the players, carrying the scoreboard.

Better yet, let Jan Stephenson play. She could unbutton her blouse, as she did for her calendar. Talk about a skins game.

While we're at it, let's change the name. Call it the $450,000 Pyramid.

That's the amount four players are shooting for, not that any of them need it to pay the mortgage. There's not a Ronnie Black or a Billy Pierot among them.

We're talking Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller. None of them is going to lose his shirt in a Skins Game.

More than any other sporting event today, with the possible exception of the Breeders' Cup, the Skins Games is made by television, for television.

But at least the Breeders' Cup brings together the best to compete against each other.

The Skins Game brings together the most famous.

Does anyone want to watch this?

Does Arnie hitch up his trousers?

According to the Nielsen ratings, the Skins Game last year had more than 8 million viewers each day. The telecasts were watched by more people than all of the major golf tournaments in 1986 except the Masters. The Sunday telecast had higher ratings than any other 1985 or '86 golf tournament, including the Masters.

The event's founder, Don Ohlmeyer, uses those figures to support his claim that he's just giving the people what they want.

That is:

Four of the game's biggest names, competing in a go-for-broke format, on one of the country's most challenging but also most spectacular courses, during a weekend when there is less football than usual on television and no other golf.

"That's what I think makes it work," Ohlmeyer said this week in the Beverly Hills offices of Ohlmeyer Communications. "But I don't know."

It starts with the players and their Q-ratings, the gauge advertisers use to determine name identification. Nicklaus, for instance, has one of the top five Q-ratings in sports.

"These names mean something to people who don't normally follow golf," Ohlmeyer said. "If you walk down Wilshire Boulevard and ask 100 people to name a golfer, if they can name one, 95 probably would name one of these players.

"If you were watching the Tallahassee Open on television and Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino and Zoeller were playing in the same foursome, you'd probably be calling your neighbor and telling him to check it out."

Especially if this fearless foursome was tied going into each hole.

In this format, nine holes are played each day. Each of the first six holes is worth $15,000, winner take all; each of the next six is worth $25,000; and each of the final six is worth $35,000. If there is no clear-cut winner on a hole, the money carries over to the next hole.

Nicklaus won the 1984 Skins Game with a birdie putt on the 18th hole worth $240,000. Zoeller earned $150,000 with a birdie on the 12th hole last year, putting him well on his way to the record $255,000 that earned him the championship.

"Arnold Palmer can't compete over 72 holes," Ohlmeyer said. "But on any given hole, he has a chance. The Skins Game is 18 different tournaments. That makes it easier for everyone to understand."

The obvious appeal of players such as Trevino and Zoeller is their personalities.

Since the players wear microphones, Scully said in an Associated Press interview this week, he intends to sit back and let the players call the action.

"I'm just going to be a scorekeeper, an accountant," he said.

But Ohlmeyer said Scully should bring along a briefcase full of his anecdotes, just in case.

"The players are natural," Ohlmeyer said. "They're loose. Their personalities come out. But it's interesting that as the stakes go up, the chatter goes down."

Nicklaus sees it a different way. "A lot of people look at the Skins Game as a lot of money going into somebody's pocket, something for a television show, which it is. We, the players, see that too," Nicklaus said.

"But it has been so successful at capturing the public's imagination that it has become an event. It started out as being something that took from the game of golf but now it is giving to the game of golf. The money is immaterial, now."

As for the course, designed by Pete Dye, the United States Golf Assn. rates it as the most difficult in the United States.

On the day that it opened, Deane Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour, said it already was one of the world's 10 toughest.

Located 30 miles southeast of Palm Springs, it may also be one of the world's most attractive courses.

"Visually breathtaking," Ohlmeyer called it.

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