Golf Skins Game

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A skins game of golf isn’t as popular as other traditional formats such as stroke play, match play, stableford or greensome, but the rules make for an exciting game. 

Skins is a game of golf whereby golfers compete for a prize on each hole. 

The prize is referred to as the “skin”. Usually the skin is a pre-agreed amount of money – after all the name “skin” comes from a bag of money. However, you don’t have to play for money, you can play a friendly game for points or something else instead. 

The rules are basic in that the golfer with the lowest score on a hole wins the skin. 

It may sound a little bit like match play, but the difference between match play and skins is that if no one wins a hole outright (i.e. a hole is halved), the “skin” is added to the value of the next hole.

For example, on the 1st hole if Tiger scores 3 and Rory scores 4, Tiger wins 1 skin for the hole. On the 2nd hole, if both players score 4, the skin value is passed to the 3rd hole which is now worth 2 skins. If Rory wins the 3rd hole, he wins 2 skins and now leads the match. 

If there’s a period in the match where a number of holes are halved, the skins can build up and build up and the value of the hole increases.

3 ball on the 3rd green at Real Golf Club de San Sebastian

The good thing about a skins game is that it can be played with a 3 ball. Generally there aren’t many “match play style” formats that work with a 3 ball but skins is probably the best of them. The format is exactly the same, and all golfers are able to compete for the skin on each hole, even if they didn’t contribute to the tying on the previous hole. 

In that sense, the game favours the somewhat erratic golfer who makes a lot of birdies and bogeys. 

As a steady player myself, it’s not the format that suits me best as you can end up building up a lot of skins for the golfer who’s done nothing for the past 6 holes to come and steal them all. But it does promote aggressive play which is good for practicing and to push yourself to try shots you perhaps usually wouldn’t!

How to play a golf skins game

  1. Assign a value to each hole. As mentioned, this can be a cash value, points (simply for pride) or anything else. If you want you can also increase the values of the holes as you get towards the end of the round i.e. holes on the front nine are worth 10 points, but 15 on the back nine. 
  2. Decide on teams and handicaps. Decide whether you’re playing individually or in pairs and agree on handicaps. If you’re playing in teams it’s best to use the same handicap rules as in doubles match play – 90% of your regular handicap. It’s also worth agreeing what you’ll do in the event of a tie.
  3. Decide who tees off first. Toss a coin or guess if your opponent’s number on the golf ball is odd or even to decide who tees off first and gets the match underway. From here on in normal stroke play rules apply. 
  4. Count the skins. The player with the lowest score on the hole wins the skin. If no golfer wins the hole then the value of the skin is rolled over to the next hole and so on until someone wins a hole where they take the lot!
  5. Total the number of skins at the end of the round. Total the number of skins for each player. The winner is the golfer with most skins. If there’s a tie-break, start a playoff or run through whatever was agreed in step 2.
  6. Pay up! Once you had a winner, settle any bets that were made. 

Golfers in the clubhouse bar at Palmares resort
Settle up any skins after the game – you can play for money or in this case, the beers

How to win a golf skins game

Skins golf favours the brave. 

Especially if you’re playing in a 3 ball, the skins game favours those who play aggressive golf (and can pull it off). The rewards are for low scoring and there’s little penalty for high scoring. There are no prizes for making consistent pars, so you’re best making more birdies and bogeys by playing more aggressively. 

As the skins are rolled over, there’s more value to the holes and they become more important to win! Holding your nerve and scoring well on these holes is key to winning.

Skins games on the PGA Tour

The skins game format was even a feature on the PGA Tour between 1983 and 2008. 

The tournament used to take place on the Thanksgiving weekend and four pros were invited to play each year. The first edition had a pretty good line up with a skins match between Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

One of the most prolific skins players was Fred Couples. He made 11 appearances between 83 and 2008 and took home over a cool $3.5m in skins from those appearances. He even took the name “Mr Skins” due to his success in the tournament. 

To keep things interesting the PGA Tour used to place more value on the holes at the end of the round. In the final event in 2008, the value of the holes were structured as:

  • Holes 1-6 – $25,000
  • Holes 7-12 – $50,000
  • Holes 13-17 – $70,000
  • Hole 18 – $200,000

This meant that the game was never over, until it was over and kept things interesting for right up until the last.