The never-before-told story about the Skins Game forgotten man

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The never-before-told story about the Skins Game forgotten man

Golf

The never-before-told story about the Skins Game forgotten man

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When Steve Sesnick read about the upcoming reboot of the Skins Game in Japan headlined by Tiger Woods, he couldn’t help but feel a moment of pride like that of a proud parent. And why not? It was further confirmation that his concept – even if he believes it has outlasted its expiration date – still works.

More than 35 years ago, Sesnick claims that he conceived the concept that became one of the most successful made-for-TV franchises in all of sports: four of golf’s biggest names, competing in a go-for-broke format over two days during Thanksgiving weekend when golf traditionally was dark, college football was limited, and even the NFL had two fewer games to compete against.

From its debut in 1983, it became a runaway success that once generated TV ratings that eclipsed all of the majors except the Masters and was another feather in the cap for television producer Don Ohlmeyer and IMG executive Barry Frank, who have long been credited for shepherding its success and not Sesnick.

So how did they steal the glory and riches from Sesnick?

“I wouldn’t use the word steal,” Sesnick says of being left out of the picture. “I’d say they just took it over.”

Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus attend a player rules meeting prior to the Skins Game at Desert Highlands in Scottsdale circa 1984. (Brian Morgan/Getty Images)

That may be a case of semantics, but what is fact is that Sesnick never earned a buck off the Skins Game franchise nor its many spin-offs; neither royalties nor mention of his role in the credits at the end of the telecast ever came his way.

A never-told-before story

Before the main event in Japan, let’s delve into this never-before-told story of how Sesnick formulated the concept of the Skins Games and became its forgotten man.

If you do a Google search of Steve Sesnick, you’re unlikely to find connections to the sports world, let alone golf. Sesnick made his name in music in the late 1960s, initially as the manager and booker of the Boston Tea Party, the major rock venue in Boston, which had given birth to many popular progressive music acts as well as throwing concerts at other prominent venues such as The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

His biggest claim to fame is managing The Velvet Underground, now regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock, underground, experimental and alternative music, following the departure of Andy Warhol after the band’s first album. Sesnick traveled in some heady circles, and counted Warhol, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams among his friends. But by 1972, he had a falling out with The Velvet Underground’s lead singer, Lou Reed, and abandoned the music scene in favor of playing golf – his new passion – morning until night.

In 1979, Sesnick’s parents relocated to Palm Coast, Florida, which has grown into a bedroom community for St. Augustine, 25 miles to the north, and Daytona Beach, 30 miles to the south. Back then, it was still in its infancy of being developed by ITT Community Development. It had an Arnold Palmer golf course and a Sheraton Hotel, another ITT property, but the 1980 U.S. Bureau of the Census reported a population of 2,837. Sesnick remembers there was nothing but miles and miles of roads and swimming pools.

He knew what Palm Coast needed to put it on the map. He’d create an event capable of generating the enormous publicity and goodwill for the community necessary to jump start home sales – only this time he’d do it around golf.

“I loved my parents,” he says. “I did it for them.”

In 1982, he reached out to Richard Bennett, the right-hand man of Howard Geneen, who was the president of ITT from 1959-77. Under Geneen’s management, ITT became the archetypal modern multinational conglomerate. But it was failing to promote Palm Coast, which envisioned golf as its calling card. Sesnick believed he could create something more appealing than Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, the long-running event that typically featured two golfers head-to-head and produced the type of spirited interaction he found lacking. Instead, it had to be four golfers, a tip of the hat to his experience in music, which is why he initially dubbed his concept simply “Four-Man Ball.”

“There were four Beatles and I envisioned Gary Player as George (Harrison). I really wanted Lee Trevino as my Ringo – what a personality – but they went with Tom Watson. But Arnie and Jack were definitely John and Paul. Paul couldn’t carry The Beatles. The whole thing hinged on Arnie. JFK and John Lennon were gone and he was one of the last left with the strength of character that everyone could get behind. The public trusted him,” Sesnick says.

He played golf with an ITT executive, Bill Sheridan, at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, Massachusetts, who connected Sesnick to Bob Spiller, the president of Boston Five Cent Savings Bank and whose company had previous relationships with Palmer. Spiller, in turn, introduced Sesnick to People & Properties, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based sports marketing company, headed by Tony Andrea and Peter Chapman. Sesnick recalls laying out the whole plan to them.

“The trick is nine holes on Saturday and nine on Sunday. People will think it’s the Masters. They’re starved for golf coverage at this time of year,” he said. “I told them, ‘Don’t touch a hair on its head,’ and they didn’t.”

People & Properties secured the participation of Palmer, the lynchpin of Sesnick’s concept. To do so, they surely had to share the details of the Skins Game with Palmer’s longtime management company, IMG, and that’s how Barry Frank, a senior vice president with TWI, the company’s television arm, first became aware of the venture.

‘You better get on board’

Sesnick’s vision ran into a serious stumbling block after he met with Sheraton executive Jim McGraw at the company’s Boston headquarters. He sent Sesnick to meet with ITT’s head of marketing, who developed cold feet. Chewing on the proposal further, he became unconvinced at the potential return on investment.

“I told him, ‘You’re going to lose it. I can’t hold it. This thing is a train, baby, and you better get on board,’ ” Sesnick recalls.

In the meantime, the train was leaving the station. Nicklaus had a relationship with Westinghouse, a rival of ITT, and suggested to Palmer that if the course in Palm Coast was dragging its heels, he could convince Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, a real-estate development with a new Nicklaus course, to step in as a suitable replacement.

Sesnick’s final meeting with People & Properties took place at the old Nabisco office at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. He shook their hands and told them that when they cut a deal to send him a check for his contribution.

“I don’t even care what it is,” he recalls saying.

He never heard from them again, and his phone calls and letters went unanswered.

It’s difficult to stitch together the details of what happened next because Ohlmeyer died in 2017 and with the passage of time the memory of several of the remaining former players isn’t what it used to be. As Sesnick tells it, Ohlmeyer and Frank, now 87 and unable to shed much light on the chain of events that led to his involvement, pounced at the opportunity. Ohlmeyer and Andrea were classmates at Notre Dame and had history together. In a phone interview, Andrea said that he and Ohlmeyer agreed to a joint venture and the framework of a deal to merge their two companies after an exploratory period to see if they could work together. Ohlmeyer reportedly bought 4½ hours of weekend airtime from NBC and partnered with Frank to sell it.

When the Skins Game became a hit, Ohlmeyer took credit as its visionary. It joined a long list of successes for Ohlmeyer, who was the original producer for “Monday Night Football” at ABC and later conceived the term “Must-See TV” at NBC, where he served as an executive producer. He launched his own production company, OCC, in 1982 and, and it was that company that produced the Skins Game for the first time in 1983. Sesnick, who credits Ohlymeyer with naming the act of winning a hole as a skin, speculates that he created his production company in order to reap the financial rewards of the Skins Game.

Robert Vairo, past president and member of Desert Highlands, helped unveil in 2008 a commemorative plaque celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Skins Game with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson. Photo: Christine Keith/USA TODAY Network

In a 1986 story in The Los Angeles Times, Ohlmeyer recounted how The Skins Game transformed Desert Highlands into a household name among golfers and ignited the golf-course construction boom in Scottsdale that made the city a golf mecca.

“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.”

By the third year of The Skins Game, there were no more homes to sell at Desert Highlands, so the developer asked out of the final year of the contract and the Skins Game moved to another new Nicklaus development in California before making a permanent home in the Coachella Valley for the next two decades.

When asked how he conceived the idea for the Skins Game during an interview in 2010 for a book on another subject, Ohlmeyer said, “I looked at a leaderboard one day and I didn’t know who anybody was. I said, What if you had a leaderboard with Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Watson? People would be calling their neighbors to tell them you have to see what’s on right now. That was the whole impetus of it.”

Adding to the murkiness regarding who exactly conceived the concept is a lawsuit filed by Bob Halloran, a former South Florida and CBS sportscaster and executive for Caesar’s World and MGM Mirage, in the 1990s claiming he, not Ohlmeyer, conceived of the Skins concept.

Halloran said he first got Nicklaus to support the idea, then arranged for Trevino, Watson, Isao Aoki, and Seve Ballesteros to join Nicklaus – a fivesome – to play a Skins Game in Japan in 1982. He claimed he pitched his idea to Ohlmeyer, who was then the executive producer of NBC Sports, during a round of golf at Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where he was a member. Ohlmeyer rejected Halloran’s idea, but made it his first sports project once he formed OCC.

“It was a pretty good settlement — that’s all I can tell you — but needless to say I would have rather owned a piece of the Skins Game,” Halloran told the L.A. Times in 1996.

Ohlmeyer claimed that the insurance company settled because it would have been cheaper than to litigate.

“To say I stole the idea of a Skins Game is ludicrous. It’s been around for 100 years. I didn’t invent it. It would be like saying I invented baseball,” said Ohlmeyer in his defense in the same L.A. Times article. “Did Bob Halloran buy the television time, handle the production, sell the advertising and take the risk? Hardly. The first Skins Game lost a million dollars.”

Andrea, who remembers Ohlmeyer’s relief when he sold an advertising package to Chrysler for the inaugural Skins Game, thought the made-for-TV event would be a one-off until his phone buzzed the Monday morning after the original competition. It was a media buyer, who had passed on The Skins Game, calling on behalf of his client, Toyota, and now begging that he must have it for the next year and beyond.

“It was so popular that we decided why not do it every year and so we did,” Frank says.

Big ratings, big money

According to the Nielsen ratings, the Sunday telecast of the Skins Game in 1985 and 1986 had more than 8 million viewers and higher ratings than any other golf tournament, including the Masters.

All of the vaudevillian hoopla between its participants made it easy to forget what were enormous stakes at the times – Player banked $170,000 in unofficial money in 1983 and Nicklaus $240,000 the next year. But the money became less meaningful as purses surged, and eventually the PGA Tour instituted qualifying criteria that led to participants such as Brett Wetterich, two-time champion Stephen Ames, and the final winner, K.J. Choi.

Golf’s Big Three they were not.

No longer able to cherry pick the big stars, Ohlmeyer saw the writing on the wall and sold his interest in 1993 when he became West Coast president of NBC. The public lost interest in this holiday tradition and in 2008 it was finally canceled when its title sponsor, LG, dropped out and couldn’t be replaced.

“It failed because of a lack of personality,” Sesnick says.

People & Properties never did merge with OCC, and Andrea, while not delving into the particulars of why Sesnick never was compensated for his idea, says, “It’s not unusual for this to happen in our business,” before detailing how one of his former colleagues, creative director Edd Griles, never got the credit or royalties he deserved for conceiving of The MTV Music Video Awards and The ESPYs.

Sesnick remembers watching Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Watson in the first year and says he never felt a tinge of regret at what could have been other than to say Palm Coast could have been a very different place.

“There’s no sour grapes,” Sesnick says. “It’s the way of the world. The big eat the little. But I got to see that my idea worked. It was kind of a litmus test for me.”

Sesnick married in 1983, had two kids and settled down in the woods of Vermont and began making and selling ice cream under the label American Creameries.

“We beat Ben & Jerrys in a blind-taste test to win the contract at Dartmouth College’s Palace Cafe,” he says.

In 1999, Sesnick moved his family to northeast Florida, not far from where the World Golf Village and World Golf Hall of Fame took flight, and continued to be an inventor of ideas. Decades passed before he heard from anyone involved in his concept again. One day, Sesnick tracked down Chapman’s home number in Connecticut and his wife answered and handed him the phone.

“Peter, I told you I wouldn’t sue you,” Sesnick recalls saying, and claims to have met Chapman at his office.

Chapman wasn’t able to corroborate Sesnick’s account. He said that over the years his company talked to several people about bringing LPGA and PGA Tour Champions tournaments to Florida, but he didn’t recall an event involving either ITT or Palm Coast.

“That’s my recollection and if Steve has a different recollection I certainly couldn’t dispute it,” he says.

When pressed to clarify if he knew Sesnick, Chapman eventually concedes, “We had some involvement with him, but he was never an employee of People & Properties is my recollection. I wish I could be more helpful, but I’m sorry. … I’ve sort of put that part of my life behind me that I feel like I’m so out of touch now that everything is a blur.”

About 4-5 years ago, Sesnick had a similar chance to achieve closure with IMG’s Frank. It happened thanks to Doc Giffin, Palmer’s longtime PR man, who was disturbed to learn that Sesnick has been the forgotten man in the Skins Game success.

“Frank didn’t deny it,” Sesnick says. “All he could say was, ‘We had to put a lot of money into that basket.’ I said, ‘Don’t get me mad. If you didn’t have a basket to put the stinking money into what would you have?’ I told him, I just want the credit and the respect. That’s all.”

Before their encounter ended, Frank had the chutzpah to inquire, “Have you got anything new?”

“Not for you,” Sesnick said.

But he does have another idea that’s been percolating in his fertile mind for some time. Given his previous experience with what became of Skins, Sesnick is keeping this one close to the vest and won’t talk about it without the signing of Non-Disclosure Agreements. But it still is being conceived from a good place in his heart. Just as Skins was created to improve the fortunes of Palm Coast where his parents’ lived, Sesnick envisions his new tournament concept being perfect for World Golf Village in St. Augustine, where he resides, and would like nothing more for it provide the spark for a turnaround for the much-maligned World Golf Hall of Fame.

“I’ve figured out a new formula for an event that will turn the whole damn world’s head upside down again,” he says.

In other words, Sesnick’s briefcase of ideas is far from empty.

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