Golf’s Thanksgiving Tradition – Recapping the Skins Game’s 25-Year Run

skins game

The Skins Game was an unofficial money match play event that became a made-for-TV tradition for golf fans across the country. Created in 1983 by TV producer Don Ohlmeyer and attorney Gary Frank, the concept was to showcase some of golf’s biggest stars in a competitive yet entertaining format. The inaugural Skins Game featured legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson playing in a match play event with thousands of dollars on the line for winning individual holes. With its big-name players and lucrative payouts, the Skins Game captured viewer interest and became a Thanksgiving weekend staple.

Over its 25-year run starting in 1983, the Skins Game provided star power and must-see drama. Other notable players who competed over the years included Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange, Fred Couples, Payne Stewart, John Daly, and Tiger Woods. Popular host venues ranged from PGA West in La Quinta, California to Landmark Golf Club in Indio. Though declining ratings and loss of sponsors led to its end in 2008, the Skins Game left behind an enduring legacy as one of the most exciting made-for-TV golf competitions that attracted the top players year after year. For over two decades, it became a golf tradition for fans across the country.

Genesis of the Skins Game

The Skins Game was created in 1983 by TV producer Don Ohlmeyer and attorney Gary Frank. They brought together four of golf’s biggest stars – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson – to compete in the first edition held at Desert Highlands Golf Club in Arizona. The concept was match play with $2,000 per hole up for grabs, making it very lucrative for the players. NBC televised it with Vin Scully as the announcer.

The star-studded field and lucrative format was an instant TV ratings hit and quickly became a Thanksgiving weekend tradition during the PGA Tour offseason. Top players were eager to compete for the payouts, which grew over the years. By 2008, holes were worth up to $200,000. Popular venues in the early years included PGA West in La Quinta, California and Landmark Golf Club in Indio, California.

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The Skins Game was televised by NBC from 1983 to 1990, and then moved to ABC from 1991 to 2008 for the remainder of its televised run as an annual event.

  • The inaugural Skins Game was held in November 1983 at Desert Highlands Golf Club in Arizona. It aired on NBC with Vin Scully as the announcer.
  • NBC televised the Skins Game from 1983 through 1990. The final NBC telecast was in November 1990.
  • Starting in 1991, ABC took over broadcasting the Skins Game. ABC aired it annually through 2008, usually in late November/early December.
  • The last televised Skins Game was held in November 2008 at Indian Wells Golf Resort in California. K.J. Choi won the final edition on ABC.
  • An attempt to revive the Skins Game in 2009 failed, and the event officially ended after 2008 when sponsors pulled out due to declining ratings.
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Rules and Format

Holes were played individually for a monetary prize or “skin”. The golfer with the lowest score on a hole won the skin. If there was a tie, the skin carried over to the next hole, raising the stakes.

  • The format was individual match play, with each player playing their own ball throughout. Scores were compared after each hole.
  • Skins were won by having the lowest score on a hole. Ties resulted in carryovers, where the skin value doubled on the next hole
  • After 18 holes, any tied skins went to sudden death playoff. The tied players continued playing holes until a skin was won outright
  • Skins typically had a cash value, often starting at $5,000-$10,000 per skin. Values increased on the back 9 holes.1
  • For the final 2008 edition, skins values were:
    • Holes 1-6: $25,000
    • Holes 7-12: $50,000
    • Holes 13-17: $70,000
    • Hole 18: $200,000
  • The total purse reached over $1 million. The player with the most skins won the entire pot.
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Notable Moments

The Skins Game produced many memorable and dramatic moments, both triumphant and controversial. With some of the biggest stars and egos in the game coming together, some of the most memorable and controversial moments included:

  • In the inaugural event in 1983, Tom Watson accused Gary Player of illegally improving his lie by flattening a leaf near his ball on the 16th hole. Watson said Player cheated, while Player denied any wrongdoing. This caused a rift between the two stars for years.
  • In 1987, Lee Trevino made a hole-in-one on the famous 17th island green at PGA West to win 6 skins worth $180,000 in dramatic fashion on national TV.
  • Annika Sorenstam competed against the men in 2003 and 2005, becoming the first woman in the Skins Game. In 2005, she outdrove opponent Fred Funk on one hole, leading him to wear a skirt for that hole as a humorous penalty.
  • Unforgettable moments included Payne Stewart winning $520,000 with a 70-foot birdie putt in 1993 and Fred Couples winning $925,000 in 2005, the largest payout in Skins Game history.
  • The event struggled to attract sponsors and big name players in its later years. Tiger Woods only played once in 2005. Declining TV ratings contributed to its demise after 2008.
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The Skins Game could not attract sponsors or top players after 2008 and officially ended when LG dropped sponsorship, after a great 25 year run. Competition from more lucrative purses on the PGA Tour during the fall season gave players little incentive to compete. After a failed attempt to revive it in 2009, the Skins Game faded into golf history.

However, at its peak, the Skins Game left a significant legacy and influenced televised golf in many ways. It drew huge TV audiences, sometimes even higher than major championships. The Skins Game helped showcase golf’s top stars like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tiger Woods to mainstream sports fans. Its fast-paced, big-money format demonstrated that alternative golf competitions could successfully draw viewers.

The Skins Game inspired some current made-for-TV events. The influence can be seen in competitions like The Match, the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, and the QBE Shootout. While these events have different formats, they likely would not exist without the Skins Game proving that off-season, unofficial golf competitions could attract sponsors, players, and fans. The Skins Game paved the way for creative formats to showcase golf talent in new ways.

In summary, while the Skins Game itself faded away, its legacy continues through the televised golf events it inspired. It carried the torch lit by Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf and showed the potential appeal of made-for-TV competitions that veered from tradition. The Skins Game proved golf could be dramatic and entertaining beyond the major championships. Its spirit lives on in the creative events it spawned, even if the original Skins Game is now a fond memory.

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