“There are no new ideas in television. Just better execution of old ideas.”
The great producer Don Ohlmeyer created a made for television golf competition that took the world by storm and captured the imagination of sports fans, not just golf fans. It was called The SKINS Game and it made its debut on Thanksgiving weekend in 1983. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player played in that first match that saw each hole worth a predetermined amount of money. Gary Player ended up winning the most “skins” and $170,000.
Ohlmeyer’s creation was an instant success. During the next twenty plus years golf’s best players and biggest names participated. All the greats from Arnold to Zoeller with Nicklaus, Trevino, Stewart, Strange, Faldo, Daly, Norman, Couples, and more in the mix. Tiger played three times (and never won) while Freddie played in more (13) and won more money ($3,515,500) than anybody else. The players wore microphones, traded verbal jabs, holed shots (Trevino made one of golf’s most famous holes-in-one in 1987), missed putts, and had a ball. We had a ball right along with them.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of the production team for four of them (1990-1993). Curtis Strange won the first one I worked beating Nick Faldo in a playoff. The late, great Payne Stewart won the next three. I was also there for the LPGA Skins and the Senior Skins Games. I tell a number of stories about those days in my memoir, Cover Me Boys, I’m Going In (Tales of the Tube from a Broadcast Brat). You can get a copy through http://www.keithhirshland.com
They played The Skins Game from 1983 until 2008. Like with most things that hang around past their sale by date people started losing interest in the early 2000’s. Tiger gave the franchise a shot in the arm for two of those late years (’04 & ’05) but when Fred Funk won in 2005, Stephen Ames was victorious in 2006 AND 2007, and K.J. Choi grabbed the most cash in 2008 the die was cast and SKINS was sunk. Despite spewing oil at the end like a Clint Bower NASCAR Ford The SKINS Game, that Ohlmeyer masterpiece, was the gold standard of all the “silly season” golf events. I say was because then May 24, 2020 and The Match II happened.
There had been an original The Match in 2018 but it was a doze bowl. It was also original slated to be televised via pay-per-view. The premise was simple Tiger Woods would take on Phil Mickelson for the staggering sum of NINE MILLION DOLLARS at the mysterious Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas, Nevada. Must watch TV right? But inherently there were problems, the biggest being Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Tiger was almost 43, had won a total of ONE tournament in five years, and was months away from his remarkable 2019 Masters victory. Phil was even longer in the tooth at 48 and also had posted one win in five seasons. Needless to say, at the time, both appeared miles past their prime. And it showed. The golf was sketchy, the banter almost non existent, and the feeling of golfers and golf fans almost universally was one of disappointment.
Then 2020 said “hold my beer”. Covid19 forced the cancellation of March Madness, the postponement of the Summer Olympic Games, and generally tossed a box of grenades into the bucket of all sports. So people were starving for something live to watch when May rolled around. Golf folks tried with a “skins game” featuring Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy playing against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff at rarely seen Seminole Golf Club. It was fine, a valiant attempt, raising more than three million dollars for charity but when the best thing you can say about a golf match was that it was “cool” to see PGA TOUR players carrying their own clubs how good could something like that actually be? We found out the very next Sunday.
The Match II was a rematch of sorts with Woods and Mickelson reentering the ring. Sure they were even older than before but this time, at least, Tiger had another green jacket and his fifteenth major championship. He also had a partner this time around. They both did. Two of the greatest NFL quarterbacks to ever play the game were part of the festivities. Tiger was teamed with two time Super Bowl Champion Peyton Manning while Mickelson would partner with six-time champ Tom Brady. The stakes were higher too. This time $10 Million was the starting point and challenges and donations would kick that number up from there (Eventually the broadcast raised an even $20 Million for Covid19 relief charities). Gone was the pay-per-view platform replaced by the family of Turner Broadcasting networks. Since it was on Turner we were also treated to Turner’s announcers; Brian Anderson, Charles Barkley, Trevor Immelmann, Amanda Balionis and a guest appearance from Justin Thomas. It was the number four player in the world’s maiden voyage with a microphone and he did a terrific job. Having the respect of the four participants as well as being Tiger’s good friend and a member at host club Medalist didn’t hurt. And THAT was it. Five announcers. And it was more than enough. In fact it probably would have been too much, just like every other try at this, if it wasn’t for the efforts of the guys in the truck.
Technically this broadcast was a marvel. Too bad inclement weather (a full on downpour to start the match and another squall on the back nine) robbed them, and us, of a technically perfect show but what we got was still damn good. The producer was Jeff Neubarth and the director was Steve Beim. Full disclosure Steve is one of my best friends and we’ve been that as well as colleagues for thirty years. He’s great at what he does, I’d say the best in the business, and it doesn’t hurt that he learned his trade at Don Ohlmeyer’s side . Steve was a part of, if not the director for, dozens of those amazing early SKINS Games. He knows the value of technology but more important he understands the value of getting out of the way and letting his announcers know they should do the same. That’s what happened Sunday.
Neubarth also produced the first Match and he would be the first to tell you there were a million things he would have done differently. It looked like he did them all this time around. It helps that he wasn’t burdened with way too many announcers, all trying to prove there was a reason for them to be there. He was luckier this go round with Brian Anderson as the traffic cop, Trevor Immelmann as the analyst and Charles Barkley as Charles Barkley. Neubarth and Beim handled them all beautifully but my guess is, with the possible exception of Sir Charles, there wasn’t much handling that had to be done. Anderson is the consummate play-by-play guy and Immelmann (who is just in the infancy of his broadcast career) is a quick study.
The players wore microphones (also a staple of these hit and giggle events) but this time Beim added a twist by also having them wear earpieces. That meant they could not only talk they could listen to who might be talking to them. More often than not that was Barkley who was tremendous. You could argue that Charles (or Chuck as all the world class athletes called him) ignited a fire under Tom Brady. The new Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback was having a miserable time for the first six holes. He barely hit a good shot let alone a fairway or a green. Then Barkley started giving him shit, in his ear, on live tv. Offering up at one point $50,000 of his own money if Brady could hit a par three green in regulation. When Tom didn’t Charles said he should have offered him the money to “keep the ball on the planet.” The smack talk didn’t stop into the next fairway. After Brady hit his tee shot into the hazard on number 7 Barkley told Tom, he wanted a piece of him on the golf course. Suddenly a guy who couldn’t find the clubface became the guy who had won six Super Bowls. Brady stood over his fourth in the fairway, swung, made great contact and sent the ball flying toward the green. It landed just past the hole, spun back and went in for a four. Beim cut back to Brady who said simply, “suck on that Chuck.” It was the moment of The Match II and I fear if it had been any other announce team or production team we never would have heard Brady say what he said.
It was an entertaining watch, from beginning to end. The guest appearances were short, sweet, and meaningful including Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. He was invited on the show because he is a “Wheels Up (one of the sponsors) spokesperson” but while he was there he pledged to donate a hundred thousand meals every time a player hit his tee shot on the par three they were about to play within 8 feet. Brady did, Phil did, Manning did, Tiger did not. 300,000 meals for needy families thanks to the broadcast and Russell Wilson. The best technology addition besides the earpieces was the “Cart Cam Technology” another Beim idea. Cameras were mounted on each player’s golf cart so we could see and hear them as they sped down the fairway to their tee shots or traversed the space from green to tee. It turned out to be some of the show’s best audio.
Now the bad news… and there is only this when it comes to the bad news. Sunday’s fantastic broadcast has spawned an endless string of “Who Should Play Next” suggestions on social media. The answer is simple. NOBODY. At least for a year. That was the beauty of The SKINS Game, the vision of Ohlmeyer. Every year lets take the four best, or most interesting, or most accomplished, players and get them together. So lets give the masterpiece that was The Match II some time to hang in golf television’s Louvre. Let’s continue to appreciate it for what it was and not get out our paint by number sets and try to recreate the “next” one. We don’t need the next one yet.