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End of an era as Skins Game ends

Each year brought more recognition to Curtis Strange. He was the first U.S. PGA Tour player to earn $1 million in a season in 1988, then he became the first player in nearly a half-century to win the U.S. Open in consecutive years.

Success brought another perk, even if it sounds silly now to mention it with the others.

He was invited to play in the Skins Game.

“That was huge,” Strange said in a telephone interview. “Remember, we didn’t play for that kind of money back then. More importantly, it was huge for everyone because of the exposure you got for two straight days. Careerwise, it meant you had arrived.”

The original Skins Game has left the American sports landscape, maybe for good.

Usually played this weekend, during the Thanksgiving holiday, there will not be a Skins Game for the first time since it started in 1983, when Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson played in a made-for-TV sensation.

Will anyone notice that the Skins Game is gone?

Probably not.

U.S. television ratings were paltry last year when K.J. Choi defeated a field that included Stephen Ames, Phil Mickelson and Fred Funk. Even when Tiger Woods played for the last time in 2005, the ratings weren’t good.

The Skins Game was canceled when it lost its corporate sponsor, and Barry Frank, executive vice president of IMG Media, continues the search for another. Golf sponsorship is a tough sell these days.

It is easy to blame the demise of the Skins Game on the players it attracted. The years of Palmer, Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Fuzzy Zoeller and Fred Couples gave way to Fred Funk, Rocco Mediate and Brett Wetterich.

Golf became so rich that stars had little reason to spend Thanksgiving in the California desert with no guarantee of a paycheck. Strange earned $200,000 for his second U.S. Open title in 1989. He won the Skins Game five months later and made $265,000.

Prize money at the Skins Game remained $1 million. First prize was more than that at 27 U.S. PGA Tour events last year.

“I don’t think it went wrong, it got bypassed,” said Alastair Johnston, vice chairman at IMG who delivered the Fab Four for the inaugural Skins Game. “When the money didn’t become competitive, when the silly season became overburdened, when golf was on television 52 weeks, it wasn’t something special. There was no point of distinction.”

Back in 1983, golf wasn’t televised after August, even though there were eight more U.S. PGA Tour events to the end of October. Then along came a unique event for four superstars, with big money up for grabs on every hole.

“The Skins Game had money at stake on every shot, and people were watching,” Johnston said. “It was a very different event. There wasn’t a great player who didn’t play in the Skins Game. You had press guys always looking for the scoop on who was going to be in the Skins Game.”

It wasn’t long before the silly season became crowded—the Shark Shootout, the Kapalua International, the PGA Grand Slam, Diner’s Club Matches, Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge, the Skills Challenge, even something called the Tommy Bahama Challenge.

Cable networks started televising the occasional tour event on weekdays, and now The Golf Channel combines with networks to bring all four days of every tournament. It’s a rare week when golf is not on TV.

Frank recalls the Skins Game getting TV ratings in the early days second only to the Masters. Not even tour events won by Woods get that kind of rating now. And the arrival of Woods brought TV contracts that quadrupled the prize money in a decade.

Not as many people were watching the Skins Game in the final years, and some might not realize it is gone.

All is not lost. If American fans want to watch golf this weekend, they can see the World Cup in China on The Golf Channel. The Americans used to win the World Cup all the time with teams that featured Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Palmer, Trevino, Couples and Davis Love III.

The Americans are represented this year by Nick Watney and John Merrick.

Total prize money is $5.5 million.


November 24, 2009

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