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Strange Stuff Has Happened : Skins Game Opens With Its Usual Unpredictability

Times Staff Writer

Is Curtis Strange, rolling on like some runaway golf cart, about to do some serious damage at PGA West in the Skins Game?

Strange has already won skins games in Canada and South Africa in the last year, won the U.S. Open, won more money in 1 year than anyone in golf and won the last tournament he played. Because he is 12 years younger than anyone else in the foursome, he really, truly ought to be getting richer today and Sunday, right?

Maybe. But things don’t always turn out as planned in the Skins Game.

“We’re human,” Strange said. “Yeah, there’ll be some joking on the first tee, I’m sure, and there’ll be some during the round, but whenever you (have) a lot of money involved, things do get serious.”

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So there you have it. Chances are that the $415,000 event, in its sixth year, will be serious--and Strange. But then again, the Skins also seems to find pleasure in springing the unexpected on the unprepared.

For 9 holes today and another 9 Sunday, the four-player lineup has a few surprises itself. Perhaps what makes the Skins Game unusual this year is who is here and who isn’t.

Arnold Palmer isn’t here. This is first time since 1983, when the Skins began, that Arnie’s Army won’t be on maneuvers.

“He thought maybe it’s time for him not to play Skins anymore,” said Don Ohlmeyer, one of the creators of the event. “And that’s his decision. If Arnold decided next year that he felt like he would play Skins again, he’d be our sponsors’ exemption.”

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Last year, Palmer was the only Skins’ player to go winless.

Jack Nicklaus is here. After receiving a half dozen cortisone injections in his aching back about 3 weeks ago, Nicklaus has renewed enthusiasm about playing the Skins.

“If I make one good shot, I get a birdie and make a lot of money,” he said.

No wonder he’s feeling better.

Fuzzy Zoeller isn’t here. After winning 14 skins and $370,000 in 1985, Zoeller automatically returned twice as the leading money winner. Last year, he won 4 skins for $70,000 and wasn’t asked back.

“It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to invite Fuzzy, but maybe it’s time to change some of the people,” Ohlmeyer said. “What you don’t want to do is have the same people back every year, because then you might as well just rack up the tape from 2 years ago.”

Raymond Floyd is here. The 1986 U.S. Open champion, Floyd is this year’s sponsors’ exemption, replacing Palmer, chosen by Ohlmeyer and Trans World International’s Barry Frank.

Why Floyd?

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“We just felt that, you know, Raymond is a legitimate superstar,” Ohlmeyer said.

Greg Norman isn’t here. Ohlmeyer said that he wanted to invite Norman, but Norman had a schedule conflict.

“We’re hoping to have Greg in the future,” Ohlmeyer said. “But we’re very happy to have Raymond.”

Strange and Lee Trevino are indeed here.

Last year, Strange won a skins game in South Africa against Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Lanny Wadkins. He won again this year in Canada against Palmer, Trevino and Dave Barr.

“I’ve been very fortunate, but these things are very difficult, too,” Strange said. “There’s a lot of pressure involved and I seem to sometimes go out of the way I normally play golf. . . . I get too aggressive and hit stupid shots. Hopefully, I’ll make a putt or two.”

Last year, Trevino’s biggest shot was not with a putter, but a 6-iron that went 167 yards for a hole-in-one on the 17th hole, worth $175,000. He won 10 skins and $310,000. Each of the first 6 holes is worth $15,000 and 7, 8 and 9 are worth $25,000 apiece. If no one wins the hole outright, the money is carried over to the next hole. On Sunday, 10, 11 and 12 are worth $25,000 each, and the last 6 holes are each worth $35,000.

The way he has been playing, Strange seems a likely choice to become this year’s Trevino, but Ohlmeyer insists that appearances are sometimes deceiving.

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“The first year, it was, ‘Geez, why did you invite Palmer and Player? Nicklaus and Watson will win all the money. This is going to be stupid.’ Of course, Palmer and Player won all the money.”

This is an important year for the Skins Game, and not only because of the changing player field. For the first time in 5 years, Nielsen ratings were down last year, from 7.0 to 5.8, which was about the same as the Masters.

Skins Game Notes

The four-player field is selected this way: The leading money winner from the previous year’s event, Lee Trevino; two chosen by a panel of experts, Jack Nicklaus and Curtis Strange, and one sponsors’ exemption, Raymond Floyd. According to Don Ohlmeyer, here is the attraction of the field: “Trevino, you’ve got a great, outgoing personality. Strange is the dominant current player, Nicklaus is the greatest player of all times and Raymond is a player who I think will be very good in this format.”

The Skins Game, which is being held at PGA West for the third year, will continue here through 1991 as a result of a new agreement. . . . Larry Babica of Silver Lakes Country Club in Helendale and Mark Johnson of Barstow won the USF&G; National skins team championship Friday at PGA West, a competition pairing a club pro and an amateur.


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