INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — You lucky Northeast Corridor readers — you know who you are: does rainy and 42 degrees sound familiar? — may want to skip this whole thing. The LG Skins game just completed, midday on Sunday, and K.J. Choi was your big winner. As Warren Buffett once wrote in one of his annual reports, after announcing a big investment in a cement-making company, “try to contain your excitement.” Still, to be here is a good thing, for the four golfers who played (Choi, Stephen Ames, Rocco Mediate and Phil Mickelson) and for the mellow crowds that watched them live.
The Skins Game, Grande Dame of the Silly Season, pushing 30 and looking improbably good, isn’t, of course, about who wins and who loses. (Although plenty of people here talk about the $240,000 putt that Jack Nicklaus made years ago as if it were an important moment in sports history.) The Skins Game is a fantasy, and this is the fantasy, more meaningful now than ever: four already-rich professional golfers will sneak off to gorgeous late-fall weather in the California desert for a golfing weekend right smack-dab in the middle of all that Thanksgiving weekend let’s-all-go-for-a-family-walk-after-breakfast stuff. The four men, filling roles earlier held by Tom Watson and Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (among others), exhibit witty repartee and crazy-good shotmaking by day; at night they gather in swank steakhouses and eat read meat. That macho fantasy was never entirely true — Trevino, for one thing, was a world-class loner, and Palmer and Nicklaus saw enough of each other on the course — but it was an easy image to sell.
Or maybe it wasn’t a sales job. Maybe it was just the image that we attached to it. In any event, the show goes on, even with Ames as Watson; Choi as, I don’t know, maybe Gary Player; Mediate as — again, a reach — Fuzzy Zoeller; and Phil Mickelson as Arnold Palmer. Without Palmer, really, there is no Skins Game. And this year you could say the same of Mickelson.
Phil really is golf’s only star. Tiger Woods is in another category. He’s an international icon, and academics will be writing papers about him a century from now. But Mickelson is the game’s lone star. Sergio and the others — Ernie Els and Vijay Singh and up-and-comers like Anthony Kim — are big talents, and people like to watch them play golf. But with Phil, like Fred Couples and Palmer before him, you find yourself watching everything he does. Even his little utterances have weight, and it’s the weight that makes them funny. He was asked in the press tent if he can be more free-wheeling at the Skins Game. He said he plays as he normally does “but with less scrutiny.” The room laughed. When he stopped to sign autographs, as he did repeatedly, security guards came running. He, and he alone, traveled this week with a huge entourage of family, parents, in-laws, friends and support staff, maybe 15 people in all.
The Skins Game is not too demanding, for anybody. Nine holes on Saturday, nine holes on Sunday. This year, gorgeous weather. A little gentle press. I asked Mickelson to play chairman of Augusta: would he cut down the so-called first cut, that stuff golfers in the California desert simply call rough? Mickelson said, and this is counterintuituve and so Phil-like, that cutting the rough would make the course harder. Then you’d have more balls going into the forests that have been planted in the Tiger Era. I also asked Mickelson how many Chinese players he thought would be on the U.S. Tour in 20 or 30 years. He said there could be dozens, if and only if golf becomes an Olympic sport. Because if it does, the Chinese, Mickelson said, would fund it like crazy and figure out a way to master it.
I’ve written this before: Mickelson showed that he really does follow in the tradition of Nicklaus and Palmer after he made a mess of the 72nd hole at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006. He answered questions afterward and went to the USGA medal ceremony when the other runners-up, Jim Furyk and Colin Montgomerie, did not. He showed in that low moment that he knows what it means to be a golf star, and this weekend he carried the Skins Game and made it look easy.
But the Skins Game is just an off-season fantasy, an escape from the cold. The U.S. Open is the U.S. Open. I’ll take the real world every time. Here’s to the new season.