InterviewDecember 12, 2011

His Ownself

Dan Jenkins on pros, presidents, and when a funny line becomes a cheap shot

It's hard to imagine a dignified fellow like President George Bush (the elder) devouring a Dan Jenkins novel the way the rest of us do, laughing himself to fatigue, taking vicarious pleasure in the outrageous antics of the lush characters and unashamedly stealing one-liners. But Bush, an unrepentant Jenkins fan, friend and golf buddy, proves how thoroughly Jenkins has penetrated our culture. For more than 40 years, Jenkins has provided uproarious depictions of athletes, captains of industry, rock stars, pretentious chefs, social climbers and media denizens.

Although Jenkins' greatest commercial successes were achieved through his bestselling novels, starting with Semi-Tough, his reputation was established through his highly stylized voice on golf. Jenkins started out as a sportswriter at The Fort Worth Press in 1948, when he was just out of high school. After covering many of Ben Hogan's greatest triumphs, Jenkins was discovered by Sports Illustrated, and later wrote two classic golf books--The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate and Dead Solid Perfect. Prolific as ever at 71 and preparing for his 50th U.S. Open, Jenkins has another golf novel due out in August: The Money-Whipped, Steer-Job, Three-Jack, Give-Up Artist.

Jenkins came to Golf Digest in 1985 and has spent the better part of the past 16 years parodying selfish tour players, phony swing gurus, insipid sport psychologists and silly tournament sponsors. To Jenkins, golf is only a game, and woe to those who put themselves above it. Senior Writer Guy Yocom visited with Jenkins in his Park Avenue apartment in New York City and found him in his usual mood--easy, matter-of-fact, fun to be with, his voice lubricated by Texas colloquialisms. As you will see, Jenkins talks the way he writes.

Golf Digest: You've elevated making fun of PGA Tour players to an art form. How do they respond to it?

Dan Jenkins: Am I supposed to care? No, seriously, I've never worried much about who can take a joke. Arnold used to laugh, but maybe he didn't get it in the first place. I've enjoyed some friendly give and take with Jack and Crenshaw, guys like Weiskopf, Trevino, Jerry Pate. Some others. Until today's era of rich, spoiled brats, players sort of respected you more if you dragged them down to your level.

Today you've got guys who aren't even Tiger Woods who are constantly fawned over by fans and sucked up to by tournament committeemen. I lay a lot of blame at the doorstep of the sponsors. You've got two kinds of tournament sponsors now: One kind wants his picture taken with Scott Hoch, the other kind wants Mark Calcavecchia to marry his daughter.

A lot of players believe you're too caught up in the romanticism of an era that has long since passed. How do you plead?

Guilty. The thing is, I can't help it that I saw Hogan and Snead and Byron in their prime and I know what great shotmakers they were. How inventive and creative they had to be. But I loved it when David Ogrin called me "a hostile voice from a previous era." He nailed me. And I've gotten my share of ribbing from Tom Kite, telling me, "You know, Dan, they just can't write like they used to anymore. Grantland Rice could really turn a phrase, but not today's golf writers."

I can laugh at all that. It's very funny. I can also get even, by the way--I've got the word processor.

Does the average PGA Tour event interest you?

Are you kidding? If it's not a major or the Ryder Cup, wake me when it's time to eat. The Kemper Open might do it for me if Tiger is going for his eighth in a row. Otherwise it's insignificant. Jim Furyk coming down the stretch against Mark O'Meara at Greensboro? That's only important to their immediate families. You might as well ask me to watch the discus and shot put.

What can players do to make the tour more exciting?

Unfortunately they don't have to do anything. The money is there, and they've got the saps on TV--everybody but Johnny Miller--telling America that every shot they hit is wonderful and every course they play is magnificent.

A smart young player out there would know to make friends with the print press. Print guys want them to become heroes, want to understand them better. Players should open up more with print, find out who to trust, establish relationships with the good writers at all the tour stops. There are no Dave Marrs anymore.

By the way, that's the worst thing about the long-suffering LPGA. The players won't say anything. They have some serious talent out there--Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Kelly Robbins, others--but their idea of a good quote is, "I thought it was 5-iron, but it was a 6."

Are the pros as accessible to the media and public as they used to be?

Not even close. Hell, they're not even accessible to each other. The old guys hung out, in the locker rooms, bars, restaurants. Players and writers drank together, had dinner together. Back then, smoking wasn't a felony and cocktails came easier. Attitudes have changed. If you see a player out in public having dinner, chances are he's with his boring money manager or some boring rich guy he hopes to design a golf course for.

John Daly seems to be a throwback. How do you view him?

I'm rooting for him to make it back, because he was great for golf. Not necessarily an original--drinking, gambling, hitting a long ball. But colorful. A ticket-seller. One of a few.

The others being...

Right now? Tiger Woods. That's it. And the spectacle of the tournament itself. Come out and have an all-day picnic and get sunburned at the rich man's country club. Or come out and get a swing tip. But players? I think Greg Norman still sells some tickets. Maybe Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson. All the others, you lump together. Part of the spectacle.

How many majors do you think Tiger will win?

Two years ago I would have said 10 or 12, but now I put the over-and-under at 24. He already has nine [including three U.S. Amateurs], he's only 25, and he's proved there's nobody even remotely in his class.

I never thought I'd ever see a greater shotmaker than Hogan or a greater winner than Nicklaus, but I have. It's Tiger. Not that I still wouldn't want Ben to get the drive in the fairway for me for my life. But Tiger makes all those other slugs out there today look like they don't even know how to play. We're talking about a truly remarkable athlete here. Something the game has never seen. Only two things can stop Tiger--injury or a bad marriage.

You believe Nicklaus won for the fun of it, right?

Jack never played for money in his life. He played against the history books, which is tougher. Immortality is a lot tougher to play for than money. Tiger's already doing the same thing.

Did you root for Nicklaus over the years?

Of course. Aside from the fact that I became friends with Jack and Barbara, it made a better story. Bigger the name, bigger the headline. Human nature. When I was at SI, I was the guy who had to tell Arnold to wear a red sweater on Sunday, for the photographers. Surveys at the time said red on the cover sold better on newsstands. I always thought that was practically the same thing as idiotic, but I wasn't in charge.

Speaking of Palmer, he's described as being the same guy now as he was 50 years ago. Is that true?

I don't suppose anybody's ever enjoyed being who they are more than Arnold's enjoyed being Arnold Palmer. I'm fairly certain that over the past 50 years he's never had a single conversation about anything other than Arnold Palmer. But I know what you're getting at. Curtis Strange said it best in '89. He said, "I've won two Opens now, so I must really be smart." He got it. Most of the guys on the tour don't. They equate winning with intellect, rich with smart. Frankly, I think it helps the great athlete to be very stubborn and about half-dumb. That way he doesn't think anything is totally impossible--like winning a bunch of majors.

What's the biggest myth about today's pro on the PGA Tour?

You know what I'm going to say to that. It's the notion that the average players today are better than the average players of the '40s and '50s. Well, they're not. But they don't have to be. The equipment is better. The ball is hot. The courses are so much better maintained now. The greens are immaculate. They seldom get a bad lie in the fairway. They play ball-in-the-air golf. Drive it 300 yards, hit to a target that will hold anything, every putt rolls true. Lanny Wadkins has said, "We make sixfooters now like we used to make twofooters."

You once said there's nothing wrong with the tour today that a good old Depression can't cure.

Being witty, of course. Except I sort of mean it. We're back to the obscene money thing again. Why should a guy be paid $65,000 for finishing 18th in a tournament? All he's done is dress sloppily, play four rounds of golf for somebody else's money, not even come close to contending, hasn't sold a ticket, draws a gallery of maybe one old chum, or a demented family of four, but he walks away with a bundle of dough. Why? Corporate sponsors. The house Deane Beman built.

You don't think you're being a little harsh?

Hey, you want to see harsh, point me to the all-exempt tour. It's the worst thing that ever happened. It's created boredom, silly winners, disgusting greed. It took fear out of the game. The exempt player can shoot at the pin all four days, not worry about missing the cut--he can still play again next week. You get these curious winners you've never heard of, and some you never hear of again. It's tyranny from the bottom. Deane's legacy.

Have you had any feuds with any of the pros?

Not really. I mean, I haven't taken any clavicle shots from anybody. But I know I've made a few of them hot over the years. It was always meant to be funny, but maybe it cut too deep occasionally. Like I wrote one time, "What fun is it to be Johnny Miller if the highlight of your social life is watching your kids turn over glasses of milk in a Marriott?" Now I liked Johnny Miller tremendously as a player, and I like him even more on the air. I hope he no longer wants me dead. In a perfect world, Bob Costas, Johnny Miller, and Mary Carillo would not only do every golf tournament, they'd do every sports event.

Who else?

George Archer and his wife wanted to drive a stake through my heart once. This was after George won the '69 Masters and I wrote that he still wouldn't have any charisma if he rode in a golf cart with Jill St. John. A little later I received a note from his wife that said, "I'll have you know that my husband has more charisma than Joe Namath and Gary Cooper combined." I thought that over. But I was wise enough not to write her back and say I agreed with her, inasmuch as Joe Namath was now crippled and Gary Cooper was dead.

Wasn't there a feud with Beman?

The commissioner and I got snappish with each other a few times. But don't you have to win one now and then for it to be a feud? I was oh-for-win with Deane. I argued with him against the exempt tour. Lost. I differed with him on building so many TPC courses, making them a cliché. I thought the first one in Ponte Vedra ought to be unique. Lost. I ridiculed him for bringing so many corporate sponsors onto the tour. Got ignored. I criticized him for the way he handled Seve Ballesteros. I thought he should have made it easier for Seve to play our tour when Seve was the No. 1 player and box-office attraction in the world. Lost that one. And I certainly thought the commissioner shouldn't have created so many unnecessary roadblocks when we were trying to make my novel, Dead Solid Perfect, into a movie. Got beat again. What feud?

Have you ever restrained yourself at the typewriter from going for a player's jugular?

It was always a temptation when somebody goofy won the tournament. It's a temptation today when Tiger doesn't win. Here's my favorite restraint story:

I'm at Medinah in '75, and Lou Graham has just beaten John Mahaffey in the U.S. Open playoff. It's hot, humid, miserable, and I'm in the press tent on a killer deadline, clacking away on the old Olivetti. Suddenly, I get this tap on a shoulder. I look around and it's Patsy Graham, Lou's wife. She grins and says, "Be nice, Dan. He's really a good guy." I laughed like hell, and I'm sure I was kinder to Lou in print than I might have been otherwise.

Do pro golfers qualify as athletes?

Absolutely. Stand close and watch the way they whip the clubhead through the ball, the divot they take, you know they're athletes. It takes an athlete to hit a 300-yard drive, straight, then change gears for chip shots and putts. And apart from Casey Martin, the pros don't ride carts.

Does Martin deserve to ride in a cart?

No. Ben Hogan never asked for a cart after the accident, and he probably had a better reason.

Most people disagree with you on this.

Really? Now I won't sleep at all tonight.

Do you get a kick out of being controversial?

No, I just take pride in being right. A guy came up to me in a hotel bar, some overserved sponsor. He squinted at me and said, "Aren't you Dan Jenkins?" I nodded. He said, "I've read some of your stuff. Man, you've got a problem." I said, "No, you've got the problem, I've got the typewriter." Big moment in journalism.

What was your first exposure to pro golf?

With my own eyes? It was when the 1941 U.S. Open came to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. I was 11. I'd only seen Colonial through a car window before that, but I was out there the whole week, thanks to being raised by a family of sports fans. When the National Open came to town, it was naturally the place to be. My dad was a scratch golfer, and my uncles and cousins and aunts played pretty well, and they all made sure I got to see the Open. So there we all were, out there at Colonial.

You were a lucky kid.

Spoiled rotten. An only-child deal.

What about being at that U.S. Open?

I'd never seen bent greens before. It was magic time. Guys in beltless slacks and two-toned shoes and all kinds of tricky clothes making the ball back up. How'd they do that? You couldn't do that on the sand greens and Bermuda greens I'd been scraping it around on. I was informed that Hogan and Nelson were from Fort Worth and that they were the greatest players in the world, and that this week, right now, my hometown was the sports capital of the universe.

I've got this photo on my wall. Walking toward the camera side by side in a practice round on Wednesday, the day before the Open started, are Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen, Lawson Little and Byron Nelson. And right behind them, about 10 yards back, is this little kid in his striped polo shirt, his white duck pants, his brown moccasins, and the ticket tied on his belt. It's me. Yeah. I have a caption on the photo. Gene Sarazen is saying, "If that little kid behind us grows up to be a golf writer, this game is in big trouble."

How did you get started playing golf?

My aunt took me out for my first round when I was about 8 years old. My Aunt Inez. She owned the drugstore, which was more than that, by the way. It was a neighborhood hangout, and a wonderland for a little kid. Soda fountain, hardware store, huge newsstand with comic books and stacks of out-oftown newspapers. I spent hours there. My aunt was an avid golfer. She gave me my first set of clubs--2, 5, 7, 9 and spoon. Ladies' clubs.

She took me to Katy Lake, a ninehole course with sand greens. It was a public course only six blocks away. The greens weren't really sand, I found out. They were dark brown cottonseed hull. Oiled so they wouldn't blow away. There was an iron rake on every green--you raked your line from the ball to the cup before you putted. Katy Lake was Ben Hogan's home course when he was in his teens. He caddied at Glen Garden, but he played at Katy Lake.

Do you remember the layout?

Every rock and clump and reptile on it. The eighth hole was a killer par 4. You had to drive over the lake. I remember how my ambition was to drive it over the lake someday. One day I did. I must have nailed it out there about 137, maybe even 150. I went home and yelled, "I hit it over the lake! I hit it over the lake!" My grandmother threw a victory dinner. When I got to be a teenager, I graduated to the Bermuda greens at Worth Hills…Goat Hills. I'd be out there all day, playing, chipping, putting, jacking around, listening to grownups talk golf. My folks encouraged it. I realized later after I got older that they'd wanted me there because they'd know where I was--they wouldn't have to worry about me being off somewhere becoming your basic juvenile delinquent.

You once wrote that you share an honor with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, two other Fort Worth golfers. Tell us about it.

On different occasions we all finished second in the Fort Worth City Championship. None of us ever won it. Ben and Byron finished second in match play when they were in their teens back in the late '20s. I finished second at 72-hole stroke play in '55, when I was a semi-grownup. I birdied four of the last five holes and was the leader in the clubhouse. Then here came a guy to make an eagle and two birdies to edge me out.

How well do you play now?

I guess I'm an 11 from the whites. But don't take me back. Like I'm supposed to enjoy it if every hole's a par 5? I've reached the age where a 220-yard drive is an awesome feat. When I play with pals, we play my rules: white tees, mulligans are free, roll it over everywhere, have fun. On the other hand, I'll play in club tournaments occasionally where you play it down and keep score, and it continually amazes me how I'll often play better.

How well did you actually know Ben Hogan?

Quite well, I think--as well as anyone could. He was a very shy man. I certainly knew him better than any other writer. We were in the same town, after all. I was around him a lot all through the '50s, covering most of the big stuff he did. I was covering golf for The Fort Worth Press while I was playing golf for TCU. Ben was the reason I started going to majors, to cover him as well as the Masters or the Open.

You watched him practice a lot, too, right?

Oh, sure. I'd go out to Colonial and go in the shop and say, "Where is he?" They'd say, "He's out on No. 11." I'd take a cart and go find him, sit there and watch him. I'd ask him a question now and then if I'd see him doing something special. One day in the spring of '51, between the Colonial tournament and the Open at Oakland Hills, I watched him hitting knockdown 3-irons about 160, 165 yards to the shag boy. I said, "What's that?" All he said was, "I need it at Oakland Hills." I don't recall seeing him use it at Oakland Hills, but he had it.

And some days he would invite you to play?

I probably played 30 or 40 rounds with him at Colonial. All through the '50s. He'd finish hitting balls and say, "Get your clubs; let's go." We'd go play nine, maybe 18. Sometimes just the two of us, sometimes he'd ask a couple of members he liked to join us. If there were four of us, we'd throw up the balls, play a $1 nassau. Sometimes I'd have Hogan for a partner, sometimes I wouldn't. And you didn't always win if you had him for a partner. A member and I got hot one day, made every putt, and I won $5 from Ben. I suppose I should have framed the $5 bill he gave me, but I spent it on a date.

Was he fun to play with?

Oh, yeah. It was great fun. He'd talk to you, joke, give you a tip; he was terrific. At first I was in awe. And believe me, I appreciated the access I had.

What did you learn from him?

Always overclub downwind. That's my favorite.

He was serious?

Very. Actually, he liked to overclub on everything. He thought it gave him more control, accuracy. But he said you can't do it unless you play golf all the time. Years later, I was making this speech at the Colonial champions' dinner and Ben was there. I reminded him of that little tip and said I'd now hit about 200 shots out-of-bounds over the green by overclubbing downwind. He laughed till his eyes watered.

Do you think he truly had a secret that made him such a great ballstriker?

Maybe it was overclubbing. No. I've always said his secret was practice. I believe that.

Then in the '80s, you and President Bush became friends and golf buddies. Tell us something the public may not know or appreciate about him.

He has a great sense of humor, almost as good as Barbara's, and he's a wonderful, thoughtful guy. So's George W., by the way. Anyhow, to be with the Prez when he was in the White House was like being with somebody you'd known for years. It wasn't like being with the leader of the free world. I was a guest at Camp David three times. It's my favorite hotel. It's gorgeous and terrific. Here's how thoughtful he is: My first time there, he's driving me around in a golf cart, pointing out things. Eventually we stop at this cabin, Holly Cabin, and he says, "You may want to go up there and sit on that bench on the porch for a moment." I asked why. And he said, "Because that's where Roosevelt and Churchill sat when they planned the D-Day invasion."

Let's talk about writing. How did you get started?

Even as a little kid, I was fascinated by newspapers and magazines. They were my TV. I'd be the first one up to grab the morning paper, mainly to look at the sports pictures, the war pictures. One day my grandmother found an old typewriter in the attic and put it on the kitchen table for me. I started teaching myself to type on it. I was around 10 or 11 then. What I'd type would be the sports stories and war stories in the paper. I'd copy them, pretend to be a newspaper guy. Then one day I started rewriting them, trying to improve them. That's when I knew I was going to be a newspaperman or a writer of some kind. It's all I ever wanted to do.

Is there a secret to writing well?

Are you accusing me of writing well? I guess I've written successfully. I'm pretty sure that writing for publication is one of the most arrogant things a human can do. Your name is on it and you're telling everybody how it is. It requires arrogance, confidence, ego, all that. It also requires self-assurance. Take writing golf. I believe that the longer you've been at it, and the more knowledgeable you've become, the more you can be definitive and opinionated. Your first obligation to the reader is to be accurate. Then if you can inform and entertain the reader at the same time--without straining a muscle--all the better.

Did you learn this on your own?

I've had a lot of help. First from Blackie Sherrod. He hired me out of high school at The Fort Worth Press. I went to college with a byline--that'll make you arrogant right there. Blackie introduced me to all his heroes, who became my heroes--John Lardner, Damon Runyon, Henry McLemore, Red Smith.

That's how you developed your style?

I took what I liked from those people, and put an edge to it. Which would be my personality, my attitude. If I have a style, that's it. I mainly studied John Lardner and Damon Runyon, who were the greatest sportswriters who ever lived. They were masters at poking fun at their subjects without drawing blood. I still think Runyon wrote the greatest lead in newspaper history when he covered the Al Capone trial: "Al Capone was quietly dressed when he arrived at the courthouse this morning, except for a hat of pearly white, emblematic, no doubt, of purity."

I 've been accused of drawing blood on occasion, and I'm sure I have, but, on the other hand, maybe they deserved it. All I've ever done is try to get at the truth of the matter.

Is golf written as well as other sports?

Well, it does have a literature, a body of work. Like somebody once said, no sport is worthwhile if it doesn't have a literature. I do know a golf tournament is the hardest sports event to cover. For one thing, it lasts four days as opposed to a three-hour football game. For another, it's a lot bigger playing field and there are a lot more competitors. But one thing never changes. In any sports event--golf, football, baseball, whatever--there's always a defining moment. The best writers are those who know how to recognize that defining moment and hammer it in their stories. I might add that the best writers know what to leave out.

Which means...

If it doesn't fit the theme, save it for later or kill it.

Have you ever suffered writer's block?

I had three kids in private schools in Manhattan at the same time, and then I had them all in college at the same time. I didn't have time for writer's block. I worked 12 years on daily newspapers before I was a magazine writer. That helped. You don't have time to fiddle around and procrastinate on newspapers. You keep typing and tell yourself you'll go for the Pulitzer next time. It was somebody wiser than me who once said the truest thing of all--that the two greatest motivations for a writer are poverty and deadlines.

How did you cross over from sportswriting to writing fiction?

I just put another piece of paper in the typewriter. Like most journalists, I think, I'd always wanted to try a novel. I'd written some nonfiction books, so I was a "published author." I knew I ought to write about what I knew. I'd never been to war, but I'd been in a lot of locker rooms and press boxes, so I wrote Semi-Tough, a novel about football. It got me out of the box, so I wrote Dead Solid Perfect, a novel about golf. And I've kept at it, with other novels about magazines, newspapers, Hollywood. Stuff I've experienced. At the same time, I've never stopped writing sports.

Do you have a clear idea of the plot before you start?

I've never outlined a novel. I know how it's going to start and how it's going to end, but I like to surprise myself along the way. A new character I hadn't planned on always seems to jump in along about the fifth or sixth chapter. That's part of the fun. Otherwise, it'd just be carpentry.

You seem to have a knack for making it look easy.

It's never easy. It's hard work, it's a craft. But it's fun and it's rewarding. I do write fast. I don't try to be fast, it's just my temperament. Deadlines did it, I guess. But I rewrite on books. Some chapters I'll rewrite maybe 10 times. Others I may never touch after the first draft. Somehow I happened to get that one right--in my judgment. On a novel, I try to keep grinding to the end, then I'll go back and stomp on it.

Your daughter says she recalls going to bed as a child hearing you typing in your office, and waking up hearing the same noise.

Sally Jenkins, you mean? My daughter, the best-selling author of the Lance Armstrong book? She's gearing up to support me in my declining years. It's true I was a workaholic when I was younger. Worked hard, drank hard, smoked hard.

The result being bypass surgery 6 1⁄2 years ago.

Yeah, but that was stress. Three packs of cigarettes a day for 45 years never hurt anybody, did it? I was supposed to have a quadruple, but I birdied one--it was only a triple. And I always sneaked food while I drank. I love food. Not fancy food, good food. Like hold the tulips on my entree. And I only drank to be social, in public, to be brilliant. We never drink at home. Never in my life have I come home and said, "Darling, let's have a martini." Home has always been for cold meatloaf sandwiches and fried chicken and milkshakes and coffee.

For decades, all you've done is travel and type. Did success come at the expense of being a good husband and father?

Well, I'm still married after 40 years to the most beautiful and wonderful woman in the world. June Jenkins knew what she was getting into, and she's traveled with me a great deal. The kids never got a vote--and kids shouldn't get a vote--but they've all turned out plenty OK.

Your daughter has said you used to take one of your kids, she or Marty or Danny, with you to a football game or golf tournament now and then when they were young. She's written, "The idea of taking us to a sports event was to see if we could tell the difference between him and the electrician."

My daughter is a wiseguy.

So what keeps you going these days?

I love what I do. The journalism, the deadlines, the books. The travel. The people. The conversation. I don't believe in retirement. I believe when you retire, you die in many ways. I hope I'll be slumped over my laptop or my desktop when they carry me out.

What would His Ownself like written on his headstone?

"Sorry if you couldn't take a joke." That would be the first line. Then I'd steal from my daughter and add, "Hey, it was only a sports event--it wasn't child-birth."