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Jim Murray

For a Skins Game, It Is Awfully Polite

November 29, 1987|Jim Murray

LA QUINTA — Do you know what your choke point is? Mine's about $15. Anything above that and a film comes over my eyes, my hand shakes, my ears ring and I start to hear voices, and all of a sudden four aces start not to look good enough to me.

I turn into one of those guys who says, "I'll play these," or I stand on 16, or take the chips off the pass line. On the golf course, if a guy hits me with a double-press, I start to lay up. A three-foot putt looks like the Red Sea to me. If my partner says, "Take your time, we need this," I start to hyperventilate.

That's why I can't understand a guy who will stand over a 10-foot putt for $240,000 without fainting dead away.

Oh, I know it's somebody else's money. The canyon jumper, Evel Knievel, once told me that he would like to play any pro at full handicap for $100,000 winner-take-all. "I know they're used to putting for that amount, but it's Bob Hope's money, not theirs," he explained. "I want to see how they do at whip-out."

On the other hand, they tell the story of the time the word went through the golf hustlers' underworld that Howard Hughes had taken up the game, and the fairway slickers came running with a hotshot young Texas player to take on the billionaire for big stakes at an L.A. country club.

The match went swimmingly till they came to the 18th all tied. Each hit a booming drive and had 7-irons to the green. "Well," drawled Hughes, "I guess this is for the whole hundred thousand." And the kid suddenly couldn't get the blade back. His face turned yellow, his eyes grew, his teeth ached--and he flew his approach out onto Wilshire Boulevard. Hughes, to whom a hundred grand was coffee money, hit the pin with his and pocketed the dough.

Golfers as a class have always fascinated me. These guys are outdoor pool sharks. They are gamblers. Instead of wearing beaver hats and gold watches and carrying their own decks on a river boat, they have cashmere sweaters, two-toned shoes and 28-year-old pitching wedges.

Check the average pro golfer at Las Vegas. He's either on the greens or at the tables. He's usually saying, "Hit me!" if he's got 17. At dice, he fades the shooter. If he's not playing golf, he's playing gin.

That's what I like about the Skins Game. It's not that la-dee-dah medal game they play every week that is like an Alpine slalom in which you're competing against a clock, not a rival. That game is like two prizefighters taking turns hitting a heavy bag instead of each other.

Jack Nicklaus even admitted this was a different game. Probably the best who ever played this game, Jack admitted before teeing up here at PGA West, "I never play for money. I play to win a tournament."

That's all right for the modern player but that's not entirely how the game was meant to be played.

You take something out of the game when you eliminate the personal touch. Medal play is a gentleman's game. You and I don't play medal play at the home club. We play the kind of game where intimidation is a factor. We're not three threesomes back of the guy we're trying to bury. We're right alongside, trying to rattle him; we follow him into the rough to make sure he doesn't tee it up, we try to make his putts 20 feet longer by sinking one right in front of him.

Lee Buck Trevino once said it best. "Pressure," he said, "is not putting to win the Masters. Pressure is putting for $20 when you've only got $5 in your pocket--and the other guy's the light-heavyweight champion of the fleet."

Lee knows all about pressure. He used to make a living hitting balls with a taped pop bottle, and trying not to get bilked by guys with old clothes and clubs to match trying to pretend they had a loop in their swings when the truth was, they had a smoother backswing than Gene Littler.

If there's a common denominator in the four guys playing in this hustle down here known as the Skins Game, it's that they're all guys who will bet on the come, call for cards even if they haven't got a pair, buck the house and draw to an inside straight.

Arnold Palmer, of course, is a guy who always would take a wood out even if the hole was 200 yards, all carry, over the Pacific Ocean. Fuzzy Zoeller will wisecrack you right out of a two-foot putt. Lee Buck Trevino, of course, is the logical successor to the storied gamesmen who used to hang around the first tee looking for the pigeons with the fast backswings and the full wallets.

Walter Hagen would have loved this action.

You have to say these guys have come a long way since Tennison Park in Texas, or Latrobe Municipal or the Fort Wayne Fourball.

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