A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of a "skins game" in golf?

February 27, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

What is a "skins game" in golf, and where did that term originate?

Many might think golf's "skins game" originated with the big money, wired-for-TV extravaganzas that feature four big guns of the golfing world chosen on the basis of personality or an ongoing hot streak or some other dubious criterion where they compete for ever-increasing pots of cash. The term "big gun" is used loosely here because anyone who has seen Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods in person invariably comments, "He ain't that big."  But I digress.

The skins game supposedly originated centuries ago in the holy land of golf, Scotland. Golf has been popular there at least since 1457 when King James II of Scotland banned it because it was keeping his soldiers away from archery practice.  His successors repeated the ban without evident success until 1502 when James IV threw in the towel, repealed the ban, and took up the game himself.

According to legend, furriers arriving in Scotland from other countries, having sailed for months in leaky boats with other smelly sailing men, icky stacks of decomposing hides, rats, and other privations, would, instead of looking for female companionship, a bath, or a decent meal, opt for a round of golf before heading into town. Being a die-hard golfer, I can totally believe that. First things first.

Anyway, these furriers gambled their pelts or "skins" on golf and the name stuck. To this day, golfers everywhere play "skins" where each hole is its own mini-tournament. The number of players can vary from two to up to eight or more. (More than four is known as clusterf#%k golf--for its high confusion level--and can be common in friendly league play at the end of the day . . . just don't let the ranger catch you.) There can be only one winner per hole. If there's a tie, the rule is "two tie, all tie" and the game carries over to the next hole, with everyone kicking in another "skin" (commonly a buck) on each successive hole. Doubling or "pressing" the stakes is common, increasing sphincter puckerage. The tension builds as carryovers mount until a winner stands triumphantly alone on a hole. The nervous fun repeats on the next hole and the next until the sun goes down or a pesky wife calls.  

The only place where "skins" is not played these days is California, where any talk of gambling or wearing of pelts, furs, or skins is strictly forbidden.

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