It was 40 years ago that the Skins Game launched made-for-TV golf during Thanksgiving weekend

In 1983, Steve 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.

If you do a Google search of Steve Sesnick, who died in October of 2022, you’re unlikely to find connections to the sports world, let alone golf. Sesnick made his name in music in the late 1960s, his biggest claim to fame was managing The Velvet Underground, now regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock.

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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. It had an Arnold Palmer golf course and a Sheraton Hotel, but the 1980 U.S. Bureau of the Census reported a population of 2,837.

Sesnick remembers there was once 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 said. “I did it for them.”

The key was to secure the participation of Arnold Palmer, the lynchpin of Sesnick’s concept. Jack Nicklaus suggested to Palmer that if the course in Palm Coast was dragging its heels, he could convince Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, Arizona, a real-estate development with a new Nicklaus course, to step in as a suitable replacement.

When the Skins Game, which also featured Gary Player and Tom Watson, 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.

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.”

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.”

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 that one in Augusta, Georgia.

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, more than double the winner’s check for the Masters ($108,000).

NBC aired the event with none other than Vin Scully doing play-by-play. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the inaugural event.

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