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It's Moving Day in Skins Game

Golf: After 13 years in Coachella Valley, event is looking for new home and may wind up in Las Vegas.


LA QUINTA — It's time again for the Skins Game, golf's oldest off-season event, which is either tried and true or just plain tired. On the occasion of the 16th annual event, the prize money is up, the ratings are flat and the tournament is packing up for a move.

The first nine holes in the $1-million Skins Game will be played today, the second nine Sunday morning at Rancho La Quinta, where Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Mark O'Meara and Tom Lehman try to find out who's going to get the biggest check, perfect for that special holiday shopping spree.

They're all really excited about it. Even though the golf season began 11 months ago, despite the fact that they played a combined 43 tournaments and they're going to have to tee it up again in about five weeks, the players said their enthusiasm hasn't diminished one tiny bit.

Lehman, for instance, was asked his opinion of the course: "It's green."

Meanwhile, the Skins Game is deciding whether the grass is greener somewhere else. The three-year deal OCC Sports and Trans World International had with Rancho La Quinta is expiring, and the Skins Game is shopping around for a new home in 1999.

Las Vegas might be the front-runner. A representative for TWI, the television branch of IMG, met recently with officials for MGM about moving the Skins Game to Primm Valley, a $38-million course near Las Vegas, for 1999. The deal would involve moving the tournament to one of MGM's two new Rees Jones courses in Boulder City, Nev., that would be ready in 2000.

Mirage Resorts, developer Steve Wynn's empire, has had talks with IMG about the Skins Game moving to Shadow Creek near Las Vegas.

There is interest in keeping the Skins Game in the Coachella Valley, where it has been staged since 1986. One possibility is a Tom Fazio-designed course at Bighorn Golf Club, which opens Dec. 15. The Tradition has been mentioned and so has the planned Landmark Golf Club, which is scheduled to open Nov. 1, 1999.

Wherever the Skins Game winds up, maybe it will provide some fresh air for golf's landmark off-season special event. Last year's television rating, a two-day average of 4.4, was down 27% from 1996 when Tiger Woods made his only Skins Game appearance.

Before Woods' arrival, there was a general 10-year decline in ratings from a peak of 7.0 in 1986.

However, the Skins Game remains a major player in televised golf coverage. Last year, the 4.4 average was better than the 4.1 rating for the British Open and only slightly worse than the PGA Championship's 5.0.

Couples has won the Skins Game twice, and his $1.19 million in prize money is a Skins record. He said the first Skins Game in 1983 at Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, Ariz., is something he can't forget for four reasons: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

"That's why I giggle when somebody brings that first Skins Game up," Couples said. "The players have changed, but the records don't.

"I don't think anyone would argue it's not the No. 1 [off-season event]. Maybe it's the No. 1-ranked event in golf. We know that a lot of people watch. It's 80-degree weather, beautiful and some people are in the snow."

The Skins Game took a step to enhance its relevance by increasing its prize money from $600,000 to $1 million, with the final hole worth $200,000. Money and big names were the object when the Skins Game began in 1983, when the total purse was $360,000 and meant something.

The Skins Game has had a tough time keeping up in the prize money race. The smallest purse on the PGA Tour in 1999 will be $1.5 million, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic that is played the same week in October as the Tour Championship.

But $1 million is hardly insignificant, O'Meara said.

"We play for our pride too," he said. "The year is winding down for all of us. This isn't the end of the world, but it's nice to finish off on a good note."

And then see where it's going to finish next year.

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