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In golf lingo, a “skins game” is similar to match play. Golfers compete against each other one hole at a time. The player with the lowest score wins the hole. The name “skins” normally involves players wagering a value for each hole. When a player wins a hole they win a “skin” and the amount wagered. If the players tie a hole, the wager is carried over to the next hole. If several holes are tied, the amount of the original wager continues to increase until someone wins a hole.
There are several stories or explanations for how the name “skins” golf originated. According to The Straight Dope (www.thestraightdope.com) the term is based on a legend from the people who invented the game. The Scottish believe that around the 15th century, furriers would return on ships from other countries carrying skins from animals they killed. Upon their return, they celebrated by playing the game of golf, wagering their animal skins. This is contested by many because, they say, it makes little sense, that after being at sea, away from society for long periods of time, choosing to play golf instead of pursuing other needs and desires. For some, it may seem unreasonable to wager their only livelihood on golf rather than seeking female companionship, decent meals, and drinks at a nearby Pub.
Another explanation is that “skins” is short for being “skinned alive”. This term is often used when someone has been fleeced or beaten badly.
According to the USGA (United States Golf Association) the term “skins” evolved over the years from the betting term, “syndicates”. In certain parts of the US, skins was also known as “cats”, “scats” or “syndicates”. The USGA suggests that “skins”, “cats”, and “scats”, are shortened versions of the earlier term “syndicates”. The USGA made Skins golf popular in 1983, when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tom Watson competed on TV in a skins format game. This made for TV event, appropriately titled “The Skins Game” continued to be played once every year until 2008.
You can choose the explanation you prefer. However, legends are always more interesting to talk about.
The Story behind the name “Skins” Golf Card Game