This weekend's Skins Game will be like none other for two reasons: 1) It will include a woman for the first time, and 2) thanks to the unique format of the event, that woman could actually win this thing come Sunday!
Annika Sorenstam missed the cut the first time she faced the guys at the PGA Tour's Colonial in May, but the Skins Game gives her a more level playing field than a regular tournament. If she hits a great shot at the Skins Game, she's probably going to win the hole. It has nothing to do with being female or male, it's all about coming up big at the right times, and she can surely do that.
If you pit Annika against the other three players -- defending champ Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson -- in a 72-hole tournament, there's no way she could win. The great thing about the Skins Game format (with each hole being its own competition in itself) is that anyone can win by hitting a few good shots at the right times.
Just ask Couples.
Couples is the king of the Skins Game, having won this event three times over his career. The last time he won it, in 1999, he was horrible for half the holes, but birdied the other half. It was bizarre. If they were keeping score he probably would have shot a 77 or 78, yet he won about nine skins and took home the most money.
I'm not saying Sorenstam will waltz to victory over three PGA Tour players. It's still going to be incredibly tough. Here's what she needs to do to have a chance:
Don't change: The biggest thing for her is to not change anything about her game. If she goes out there trying to keep up with the guys, she's toast. But if she plays her conservative fairways-and-greens game like she usually does, she'll be in almost every hole.
Birdie chances: So often in the Skins Game people think you have to go for broke and make birdie on every hole. That's not the case. Well, it's not the whole story, anyway. Sorenstam won't need a birdie on every hole, but she does need to give herself a chance at birdieing every hole. If she can set herself up with 20-foot birdie chances, it will eventually pay off.
At some point, the guys are going to make mistakes trying to be aggressive. There might be a hole where two of them hit it out of play and she then only has to beat one to get the skin. When someone screws up, she needs to take advantage. It's important for her not to play her way out of a hole, she needs to keep giving herself chances. Even if it's a 50-footer, it's a chance.
Flash back to Colonial: She has to play a lot like she played during her first round at the Colonial, when she hit the ball beautifully and shot a 71. She put it in the fairway off the tee and hit almost every green in regulation. She's going to have to do the same thing at Trilogy Golf Club, which shouldn't play nearly as tough as Colonial.
Come up big on 18: The final hole is worth $200,000, and that could increase depending on what happens on the holes leading up to it. So playing well on the 18th will be key for Annika. Unfortunately, it's a monster 580-yard par 5, so she'll be at an automatic disadvantage distance-wise. If the guys can reach this in two, she's in trouble. But if they have to lay up because of length, bunkering or whatever, then she's back on a more level playing field.
This will be a Skins Game where three or four players will be in a lot of holes, so it will be fun to watch. This format is so much like what Joe Hacker plays at home. When you go out on Saturday morning with your buddies, this is what you play. And I think people love to see these great players do the same thing.
Usually, it's pretty lively the first day, and there's a lot of kidding and talking back and forth. But when they get into that second nine holes and the stakes start to increase (the first six holes are worth $25,000 apiece, the second six $50,000, the next five $70,000 and the final hole $200,000), the players get serious.
The nice thing is that the three guys will be very comfortable with Annika playing. Freddie is Freddie; he's always a hit in the Skins Game. O'Meara is very relaxed; he'll talk a lot. Mickelson is very good-natured about this stuff. It could be one of the more interesting Skins Games in a long time, even though none of the top 10 players in the world will be there.
Mickelson comes into this weekend really struggling. He was shut out (0-5) at last week's Presidents Cup and missed the Tour Championship earlier this month for the first time in his career. There are a lot of reasons why guys struggle, and sometimes it happens for no reason. Look for him to start fresh in 2004 and turn it around.
O'Meara has been struggling, as well. He finished a career-low 143rd on the money list and has to use an exemption to keep his tour card for 2004. However, he came into last year's Skins Game struggling, as well, and he won it. Welcome to the Skins Game, where a player can make birdies in big situations and come away with a win. Any time you take a veteran player who's won a lot of championships and put him in an event like this, they can play great. And that's what you should expect from Mark this week.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North serves as an analyst for ESPN, and will be at Trilogy GC covering this weekend's Skins Game for ABC.