Skins Ends With Stretch Marks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 16th Skins Game lasted so long it grew a whole new epidermal layer.

After 4 hours and 23 minutes, nine holes of regulation and a record six playoff holes, Tom Lehman finally made a four-foot putt birdie Sunday at Rancho La Quinta Country Club that was worth $270,000 and mercifully ended the thing before they were forced to start serving dinner.

So just how long did it actually last?

"It seemed like it took forever," Lehman said.

The big winner was Mark O'Meara, who already had made $430,000, which could have earned him a ton of interest if he just thought of depositing it while the playoff was going on without him.

O'Meara followed the first three playoff holes on foot, then gave up. "I sat down on the ninth green and just kind of waited," he said.

Couples and Lehman kept him waiting for a while. Lehman wound up with $420,000, made possible when Couples missed consecutive birdie putts on the first four playoff holes when any of them would have won it.

Instead, Lehman just kept hanging in there, marking time until he was face to face with an opportunity. It eventually came the fourth time he played the 400-yard, par-four 10th.

Couples hit his eight-iron second shot to 12 feet, but he just missed his birdie putt. Lehman's nine iron from 138 yards stopped four feet away. Then he rolled in the birdie putt to finish off Couples.

Lehman sounded as if he was almost sorry for Couples.

"It's a big mind game, this golf," Lehman said. "Generally speaking, when you have a few cracks at it and you don't make them, you don't win. Missing those putts wears on you. At least it would wear on me."

In the final accounting, O'Meara wound up with eight skins and $430,000, the highest Skins Game payoff, exceeding the $370,000 Fuzzy Zoeller won in 1986. Lehman won seven skins and $420,000, Couples three skins and $150,000 and Greg Norman was blanked.

Unfortunately for Norman, his post-surgery progression seems to be going in reverse, from the Shark Shootout to the Shark Shutout. After being eliminated on the third playoff hole, Norman seemed more interested in planning how quickly he could make his getaway, which he accomplished skillfully. He hung around for one more hole, then took off for the airport.

O'Meara was finished after the first playoff hole when he made a bogey.

Since the 18th was a carryover hole that added up to $270,000, that meant the playoff was addition by subtraction, with only Couples and Lehman around for playoff holes four through six.

As the new champion, O'Meara will be invited back to defend his title in next year's Skins Game--wherever that may be, considering the event is moving from Rancho La Quinta.

No matter where it's new home may be, the Skins Game has been very good to O'Meara, who was grateful to be taking home the $430,000 he stuck in his bag Sunday.

"It's been a terrific year for me," O'Meara said. "This just kind of caps it off."

Of course, money is relative at this level. Couples, for instance, has a hard time relating to the $87.5-million contract Bernie Williams signed with the New York Yankees last week.

"If I signed that contract, I would walk and hold hands with everyone in the gallery," he said. "I think it's ridiculous that an owner can sign a guy for that money."

You can see his point. Couples made $1.65 million this year, the most in a 16-year career that has produced $10.5 million so far, but still leaves him a couple of miles short of Williams' baseball deal. Maybe Couples should have learned how to hit a curveball.

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