You think if a Pro wins a prestigous event, a gift would be out of the ordinary? I would not think it would be far fetched at all. In fact, I would bet a number of pros that have won nationals for a client have recieved fairly large gifts. I have been given gifts by my clients before (although nothing to trigger a taxable event!) so I would not think a gift from an owner to a pro would would be out of place.
Secondly, gifts over $12,000 are definitely a taxable event. You must file a tax return annually on gifts over $12,000. Whether you owe taxes on that money depends on the situation and what exculsions might apply. A taxable event does not mean that taxes are actually owed. Taxable event means the event must be reported. You are correct that you might not owe taxes until you meet the lifetime threshold.
If you want to read a quick guide that gives some great examples, here is a link: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p950.pdf