There is no definitive answer to the question, unfortunately. There are, however, a couple of commonly offered explanations, and one of golf's governing bodies also weighs in on the question. And a new contender for the origin has emerged from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (see "update" below).
Do a Web search, or ask enough golfers, and the most common explanation for the origin of "skins" is likely to the one provided by the Web site The Straight Dope (www.straightdope.com) in attempting to answer the question:
"The skins game supposedly originated centuries ago in the holy land of golf, Scotland. ... According to legend, furriers arriving in Scotland from other countries, having sailed for months in leaky boats with other smelly sailing men, icky stacks of decomposing hides, rats, and other privations, would, instead of looking for female companionship, a bath, or a decent meal, opt for a round of golf before heading into town. ... (T)hese furriers gambled their pelts or 'skins' on golf and the name stuck."
The biggest problem with this story is one of logic. Would furriers who'd been at sea for months, possibly longer, really head for the golf course before heading to a pub or taking a shower or visiting a brothel? We find that very difficult to believe.
It's also difficult to believe that anyone spending months trapping animals for their hides, and months more on the sea sailing to and from distant lands, would gamble their livelihood. They could take those pelts to market, after all, then gamble a little bit of the money they made.
As The Straight Dope pointed out, this version of the origin of "skins" is a legend.
Another explanation, more believable but not as frequently offered, is that "skins" derives from the word's connotation of "skinning" an opponent. If someone lost a hole for a large amount of money, they might be said to have been "skinned alive." This meaning of "skin" is well-known, if no longer common in everyday use. It means to fleece or swindle someone.
To us, this explanation makes much more sense than the one involving furriers in 15th century Scotland. But this explanation is not accepted by everyone, either.
Which brings us to another possible explanation. This one is offered by the Library of the United States Golf Association in its FAQ. Given the source, it seems the most credible, even if this explanation doesn't hold the same charm as the first one, or make as much sense as the second one.
The USGA Library writes:
"As a format of golf gambling, 'skins' has been around for decades, but really only became popular after the creation of 'The Skins Game' in the 1980s. In other parts of the country, 'skins' is also known as 'cats,' 'scats,' 'skats,' or 'syndicates.' Of these, 'syndicates' seems to be the oldest term, going back at least to the 1950s, and possibly earlier. It has been suggested that 'skins,' 'scats,' etc., are simply shortened, simplified versions of the term 'syndicates.' "
We'll grant you, that's not the most satisfying response. According the USGA Library, the term goes back only to an antecedent from the 1950s. That rules out Explanation No. 1 from above. And the USGA's take, while an etymological one, focuses on a different etymology than that offered in Explanation No. 2 above.
So we'll simply conclude by repeating what we said earlier: Given the source, the USGA's explanation seems the most credible, even if their explanation doesn't hold the same charm as the first one, or make as much sense as the second one.
UPDATE: A new contender has emerged, courtesy of Paul Cary, director of the Jones Music Library at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Paul turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, and discovered this in the OED2's entry on "skins":
From the definition of skin, n
2 b. U.S. slang. A dollar.
1930 [see BY prep. 33e]. 1950 [see LIP n. 3d]. 1976 R. B. PARKER Promised Land xx. 121, I got a buyer with about a hundred thousand dollars ... a hundred thousand skins.
The possibility that the golf use of "skins" derives from its serving as slang for "dollars" certainly makes great sense, given the nature of skins games (where "skins" often represent a dollar amount). However, it does conflict with the USGA's "syndicates" theory, which can't be dismissed since the USGA says that "skins" are called "syndicates" in some regions. But given that two different words are in use, perhaps both explanations can be valid.
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