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

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

“I’m hoping there will be 12 inches of snow all around America except for Palm Springs. It’s that time of the year when people in many parts of the country want to stay inside on weekends. When they turn on the television and see this course, and this weather, they’re captivated.”

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But it’s not only the season that makes the Thanksgiving weekend the best time for the Skins Game, Ohlmeyer said.

This is the first weekend of the fall when there is a limited college football schedule on Saturday.

On Sunday, there are two fewer games than usual because four teams play on Thanksgiving Day.

“It’s the only weekend we’re guaranteed of not having to go against Dallas-Washington because Dallas always plays on Thanksgiving,” Ohlmeyer said.

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It’s also one of the few weekends when there’s not another professional golf tournament somewhere in the world.

As a result, the PGA tour has no objection to four of its marquee names playing in the Skins Game.

“The PGA is basically interested in putting on events with 144 players,” Ohlmeyer said. “They’re not wild about limited fields. But the fact that it’s this weekend, when no other event is occurring, is attractive to them.

“They also recognize that if we’re successful, it draws people to the television who don’t normally watch golf. It generates new fans.”

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As far as advertisers are concerned, the fans who are attracted to the Skins Game are the right kind, ones with money.

Why else would Rolex, which never has advertised on television, buy time for this year’s Skins Game?

“Our demographics are unbelievable,” Ohlmeyer said. “Golf has an upscale audience to start with, but the Skins Game has even better demographics than normal for golf.”

About the only thing the Skins Game doesn’t have in its fourth year is credibility as a sporting event, whatever that’s worth.

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But even that’s improving.

In its first two years, Ohlmeyer and his partner in this venture, Trans World International, chose the four players, Nicklaus, Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

“We wanted the big three back together again,” Ohlmeyer said. “As the dominant player of that time, Watson was icing on the cake.”

In the last two years, Ohlmeyer has developed a selection process, which guarantees that the defending champion will be invited along with two players selected by a 75-member panel of golf officials, writers and manufacturers. Ohlmeyer gets to invite the fourth player. After all, it is his show.

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It’s significant that the panel is told to select two golfers based not on their abilities but on their public appeal.

This year, the panel chose Nicklaus and Trevino.

Palmer finished third in the voting but received an invitation from Ohlmeyer.

“Look at these guys, they’ve earned the right to be here,” Nicklaus said. “Arnold won 50 tournaments before he ever earned a million dollars. These guys today, it takes them two years to be a millionaire, whether they win a tournament or not. Payne Steweart has won a million dollars since he won his last tournament.”

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Some players believe there should be a standard for entry other than popularity.

It has been suggested that the PGA tour’s four leading money winners be invited. This year, that would have been Greg Norman, Bob Tway, Payne Stewart and Andy Bean. Although they are all exceptional golfers, their Q-ratings combined wouldn’t rate a second glance from Rolex.

If the winners of the four major tournaments were invited, that would have given this year’s Skins Game an attractive field of Nicklaus, Norman, Tway and Ray Floyd. But last year would have a produced a less-than-inspiring field of Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Hubert Green and Andy North.

Besides, that format has come and gone. Once used by the World Series of Golf, it died from lack of interest.

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“There’s a difference between stars and superstars,” Ohlmeyer said. “The Skins is about superstars. To be a superstar, it doesn’t depend on how well you did last year.

“The key to the success of the Skins Game will be to continually attract the players that everyone wants to see. It’s like the baseball All-Star game. If you sent out a ballot, these are the players that people would want to see.

“If Greg Norman has another year like he had this year, I would guess he’ll be among the players that the people want to see. If so, he’ll be invited. In that way, the Skins Game is developing a life of its own.”

Ohlmeyer defended the tournament’s legitimacy, pointing out that the players aren’t guaranteed a cent.

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“We assumed the first year that the players would want a guarantee,” he said. “I had been involved in the creation of ‘Superstars’ (for ABC), and we had to make the last-place money so attractive that everyone made out OK regardless of how well they did. We thought we’d have to do the same thing for the Skins Game.

“But Jack, to his credit, said that if you pay appearance money, then it becomes an exhibition. He said that if you’re going to play, you should have the confidence that you’re going to win something. All the other players said that if that was fine with Jack, it was fine with them.

“One of the hardest things we had to do that year was to get the public to believe we weren’t paying appearance fees. But once we did that, it made us legitimate and not a made-for-TV event.”

To say that the Skins Game was not made for TV is like saying the Rose Bowl was not made for football games.

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After several years at ABC, where he produced “Monday Night Football,” and NBC, where he was an executive producer, Ohlmeyer began his own communications company in 1982.

His first project was “Special Bulletin,” a made-for-television movie that was shown in 1985 and won an Emmy.

His next project was the Skins Game, which he and a colleague arrived upon during a brainstorming session. When none of the networks was interested in funding the show, Ohlmeyer bought 4 1/2 hours of weekend air time from NBC for “well over a million dollars.”

Citing the risk, the colleague dropped out of the project. But Ohlmeyer found a partner in TWI, which is associated with Mark McCormack’s International Management Group. IMG’s foremost client for a number of years has been Palmer. So Ohlmeyer had no difficulty getting at least one player he needed.

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The other players were more cautious.

“I couldn’t get the players until I was sure we had an event,” Ohlmeyer said. “I couldn’t get advertisers to sponsor the event until I had the players.”

Ohlmeyer didn’t nail down contracts with Nicklaus and Watson until the day before the 1983 Skins Game.

The investment by Ohlmeyer and TWI the first year was $2 million.

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“We barely escaped,” he said.

But then the ratings came in and it’s been a tap-in ever since.

The first Skins Game was in Scottsdale, Ariz., at Desert Highland, a recently opened resort that wanted the exposure in order to sell real estate. Not coincidentally, the Desert Highlands course was designed by Nicklaus, another player Ohlmeyer had to have for the Skins Game to be successful.

“The first year we were there, it had sold only a few houses,” Ohlmeyer said. “By the time we went back for the second year, it was almost sold out.

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“Desert Highlands immediately became successful because of the Skins Game. By Monday morning, the course was the talk of America. Even though it had been opened for only about a month, people talked about that course as if it were important.”

Ohlmeyer had a three-year contract with Desert Highlands, but, by the third year, there were no more houses to sell. So Desert Highlands asked out of the contract, suggesting that the Skins Game go to another new development, Bear Creek in Murietta, Calif. That course also was designed by Nicklaus.

This year, the new PGA West in La Quinta has real estate to sell. It is owned and operated by Landmark Land Company, Inc., which has six golf course developments in the Southwest.

The course was designed by Dye, one of the country’s most respected golf course architects. His goal at PGA West, according to a press release, was to build an English or Scottish seaside course in the middle of the California desert.

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“I don’t care if they have houses to sell, but I accept the realities,” Ohlmeyer said. “My only concern is how it looks on TV.”

But Ohlmeyer does have at least one other concern.

Because PGA West is a stadium course, this Skins Game, unlike the previous three, is open to the public. More than 7,000 tickets have been sold. Ohlmeyer said he expects a sellout crowd of 10,000. All of the spectators, of course, will be following the same foursome.

“They say that stadium courses can handle 10,000 people on a hole,” Ohlmeyer said. “That means that every hole is going to look like the 18th at the British Open. It’s going to look unbelievable.

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“My biggest fear, though, is that we’re not going to be able to handle it. I’m having nightmares about it.

“But you need something to keep you scared. If you stop being scared, you stop doing good work.”

Who decides what’s good?

Nielsen, of course.

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