Dan Jenkins was shrewd, funny, lawless, but mostly he was a natural. He made golf-writing look easy

March 8, 2019
Dan Jenkins and Ben Hogan

ORLANDO, Fla. – How Rickie Fowler feels about Arnold is how a lot of us, in the typing trade, feel about Jenkins. Dan Jenkins made it look easy. Arnold made being a famous golfer look easy. Also, cool. Jenkins, as maybe the last famous pure sportswriter the world will ever know, did the same. They were both born in 1929. They came of age in the prosperity and peace of the 1950s. And that explains everything. A million cigarettes and more cocktails could not kill them.

Jenkins died on Thursday, at 89. If you want to have a good time this weekend, visit the websites of Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest, the two magazines where he spent most of his career, and lose yourself in his stuff. If I were to point you to one book, it would be The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. For one story, his profile of George Low in SI from ’64. For a column, his Golf Digest fake interview with Tiger from 2014. You could say it’s awful and maybe it is, but it shows a certain lawlessness that was at the heart of his writing. Arnold’s golf, the same.

Oh, let’s not forget his tweets. From Feb. 3: “If Johnny Miller yells ‘Choke!’ in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does he make a sound?”

Jenkins, pictured here in 2014, will be remembered as one of the greatest sportswriters of all time.
Dallas Star-Telegram

Kids, do not try to imitate Jenkins. His advice to you, not that he gave advice, would be this: be yourself. That’s the example of his one-of-kind life. Herb Wind, from the generation before his own, might have gone for a Latin phrase there. Herb went to prep school and Yale. Herb was Bob Jones and coastal New England. Jenkins was Hogan, Trevino and the whole of Texas. He would have never lived here, in sunny Orlando. Way too suburban. He lived for decades in Manhattan, had a big house on the ocean in north Florida but always really considered Fort Worth home. If anybody knew Hogan, it was Jenkins. Jenkins did more to turn Hogan into golf’s Greta Garbo than anybody.

The best tribute to him is Tom Callahan’s, which he wrote for Golf Digest. Reilly will probably write something good. It’s too bad Jim Murray is dead.

He could be mean, sometimes vicious, especially if a no-name dared to win a tournament that he was writing. He wrote the winners and one of his things was about the pleasure of writing, as he said, “Jack Nicklaus, comma.” Jenkins would never write “deep pleasure,” by the way. Why on earth would you want to sully a perfect word like pleasure with a modifier? He took newspaper austerity and went to town with it. If he read Hemingway, I don’t know, but there’s some kind of link there, except that Jenkins was funny.

Kids, do not try to imitate Jenkins. His advice to you, not that he gave advice, would be this: be yourself. That’s the example of his one-of-kind life.

I sent him a manuscript and followed with a call in 1986, looking for a blurb for a book I had written, about a brief stint caddying on Tour. It’s impossible that he read it — why would he? I described it to him. With barely a pause he said, “Here, for a change, is an Ivy Leaguer carrying the bags of other people.”

Last year, at the Golf Writers dinner during Augusta week, I had a date (with wifely approval), Peg Palmer, older daughter of Winnie and Arnold, a woman with liberal sensibilities in every good sense of the phrase. (Open to all people, most ideas, etc.) Peg drove down from Durham for it, for one reason above all others: She wanted to say hi to Jenkins. If I had ever been on the fence about Jenkins (some of his sensibilities did not match my own) her endorsement of the man buried any lingering reservations I might have had. They chatted for maybe four minutes. Jenkins in 2018 looked pretty much as he did in 2008, 1998, 1988, etc., minus the cig.

When he got into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012, he said, “To justify my inclusion in this terrific society, I went back and looked at everybody who’s in it and did some statistics. It turns out that I have known 95 of these people when they were living. I’ve written stories about 73 of them. I’ve had cocktails and drinks with 47 of them, and I played golf with 24 of them. So I want somebody else to try and go up against that record.”

That’s not happening.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]