Gillen (right) and a close personal friend.
A big problem with almost any skins game is that it gives an unfair advantage to players with high handicaps. My friend Tim—who is the mathematician-in-residence of my regular Sunday Morning Group—invented an improved version seven or eight years ago, and my regular golf buddies and I have played it ever since. Tim’s version eliminates all the weaknesses of the regular game. It’s so good, in fact, that we call it Perfect Skins. Here’s how it works:
Each player, on the first tee, throws in some mutually agreed-upon sum—say, ten bucks. That money is divided into two skins pools, one for the front nine and one for the back, and every skin won is worth a proportional share of its pool. (If three skins are won on the front nine, for example, each is worth a third of the front-nine skin pool; if a single player finishes with two of those three skins, he wins two-thirds of the pool.) The object is the same as in any skins game: to win holes outright, with scores unequaled by other players. But there’s a twist: in Perfect Skins, a player who loses a hole outright, with a score that’s worse than everyone else’s, gives up a skin—or acquires a negative one, if he has none to give up. Let’s say the sixth hole is birdied by one player, parred by two players, and bogeyed by the fourth; in that case, the player with the birdie wins a skin while the player with the bogey loses one. We call negative skins “Gillens,” after the last name of the particular player whose long-running success at regular skins Tim was trying to thwart with his invention. Gillen hates Perfect Skins.
Any player with a negative skin balance may buy himself back to zero before teeing off on any hole during the nine-hole match, at the price of one dollar per negative skin, with the money going into the pool for that nine—but he may do so only once during the nine. That leads to the really interesting part of the game: Winning a skin when your balance is negative feels like a waste, because it merely moves you back toward zero rather than earning you a share of the pool. But buying back too early in a match raises the risk that one or two bad holes near the end of the nine could give you a deficit too large to eliminate before the end of the nine.
If you haven’t used your buyback yet, acquiring a negative skin is often less costly than permitting another player to win a positive one and thereby gain a share of the pool. That means that attempting a very risky shot may be to your advantage, if there’s a chance that doing so will prevent another player from winning the hole, or if doing so will ensure an outright loss by a player who now has a positive balance—unless you yourself hold a couple of skins, in which case your best strategy may be to play defensively. A player who ends the nine with a negative skin balance—say, because he lost the final two holes outright—owes the pot two dollars for each negative skin still in his possession at the end of the nine.
Perfect Skins eliminates all the shortcomings of regular skins: it greatly reduces the influence of luck, because erratic players are punished for their disasters in addition to being rewarded for their fluky good fortune; it eliminates the high-handicap advantage, because the players with the most strokes are also the ones who are the most likely to suffer the kinds of disasters that lead to negative skins; it keeps everyone in the game, because not losing a hole can be just as important as winning it, and players who suffer a string of bad holes can redeem themselves by buying back into the game; it adds a new level of pressure, especially on the final tee, because skins aren’t safe until the last putt has fallen.
I’ve played Perfect Skins in threesomes, foursomes, and fivesomes, and it works beautifully, though somewhat differently, in all those combinations. With three players, for example, the skin balance changes on every hole unless all three players tie—meaning that the standings can shift dramatically over just a few holes. With five players, in contrast, outright victories are harder to come by, so that a single skin successfully held to the end of the match could end up being worth the entire pool. In all combinations, the most important issue for any player with a negative balance is deciding when to buy back to zero. You have to think realistically about how well or poorly you’re likely to play the holes that lie ahead, and who still has strokes, where you yourself have strokes, and where you can afford to be aggressive.