Skins games are the king of all golf formats

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Skins games are the king of all golf formats

Golf

Skins games are the king of all golf formats

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There is no better golf format than skins.

You can keep your two-dollar Nassau with auto presses or your handicap-weighted Stableford points games that require way too much post-round math. And don’t even mention silly dot games that actually reward missing greens with sandies – isn’t the point to avoid the bunkers?

Skins games are all about birdies. Unless the game has dozens of players who are accustomed to circling numbers on their scorecards, because then it might be all about eagles. Pars usually only matter when almost everybody hits foul balls.

Anything past par? Pick it up. Nobody wants to watch their opponent plumb-bob a putt for double. A skins game nullifies that anguish.

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama will showcase (hopefully, at least) what everybody wants to watch on TV – birdies by the bunches – in “The Challenge: Japan Skins” on Oct. 21 (Oct. 20 ET) at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba. The event should be interesting because bad shots won’t matter, allowing the PGA Tour foursome to play aggressive golf.

That’s what skins games are all about.

When you have to post a number for a full 18 holes, that quad on No. 13 matters. You have to tread carefully to avoid big mistakes that effectively erase the scoring value of every good shot you hit during a round. In regular golf, every stroke counts. In skins, only the good shots count.

The format is simple. Score lower on any given hole than everyone else in the game, and you win the hole – a skin. Nobody cares if you just three-jacked an easy par 4 for bogey, because anything higher than par is probably irrelevant in all but the most struggling of golfing circles.

Everyone kicks in a few bucks, and the total pot is divided by the number of skins won. For this made-for-TV edition in Japan, holes tied by at least two players carry over to the next hole. But that format only works well when the entire game consists of just four or five players.

Around Orlando, where legions of aspiring professionals and degenerate golfers alike chase each other’s pay checks and where I have lived for nearly 14 years, the games get much larger. But one of the joys of skins is the buy-in hardly ever grows high enough to be a deterrent. A $20 bill and you’re in.

So long as this small-stakes kind of gambling isn’t required as part of an entry into a formal tournament, the U.S. Golf Association has approved the casual skins format for golfers looking to protect their amateur status. And while some states and municipalities have declared this type of social gambling to be illegal – check your local statutes if you’re concerned – it’s a sure bet that skins games are played wherever grass is mowed into the shape of a green.

What often makes a skins game so compelling is you can have a terrible day, scoring-wise, and still make out like a bandit. Make 16 “others” with two birdies? That could be a winner-winner-chicken-dinner kind of day. Every hole is a new opportunity, and you don’t even have to write down your score for each hole. If it’s not a low score, forget about it.

There’s a great sense of anticipation in waiting until the end of the round, when the cards are compared, to see if your freshly minted skin holds up in a multi-foursome game. Then it’s quite a kick to watch your opponents’ faces as you tell them how bad you played while folding a stack of Andrew Jacksons into the side pocket of your stand bag.

The format can seem almost cliché – television popularized the skins game back in the ’80s – but its genius is in its simplicity. If golf is all about one shot, one hole at a time – as several noted sports psychologists and every third-round leader of a PGA Tour event will lead us to believe – then skins is the way to go.

Skins can lack the in-your-face mentality of a heated fourball or some other testy gambling formats, but that’s OK, this is supposed to be a civilized sport. Because you should get plenty of your own chances to score, you rarely find yourself pulling against your opponent in skins – unless that lucky so-and-so has a curling 5-footer for birdie right after you chipped in.

And skins are made for those of us with short memories, which is pretty much any golfer. It’s a visceral format. Drain a 20-footer for birdie and the whole world is sunshine and flowers. Watching the next guy sink an 18-footer to cut your skin is a punch in the gut. But the sting doesn’t last long, because it’s on to the next hole and a new opportunity.

This is a sport of remembering that one perfect shot, that one long putt that falls, while forgetting all the miscues and wasted chances along the way. No sane person forks over a green fee thinking about all their upcoming bad shots. It’s a game of hope. Of renewal. Of dreaming of that perfect ball flight on the next shot.

And skins fit that perfectly.

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