June 25, 2007

It's time to honor Dan Jenkins

Writer Dan Jenkins belongs in the Hall of Fame

In positioning itself as an ambitious new title sponsor on the PGA Tour, hotel chain Crowne Plaza has been airing a series of television commercials that feature a diverse group of golf personalities engaged in a roundtable discussion. Glam rocker Alice Cooper, for instance, is seated next to LPGA princess Natalie Gulbis as Lee Trevino dumps the ad's punchline on fellow Mexican American George Lopez. Despite the Hollywood Squares overtones, most of the dialogue is handled by a white-haired man with a hearing aid whose identity is never fully revealed.

One suspects Dan Jenkins wouldn't be caught dead wearing a nametag, surely owing to the belief that if you don't know who he is, he'd find no need to tell you. A legend in every press room he has entered for at least 40 years, Jenkins' essence, however intentionally, is neatly captured in the Crowne Plaza spot. Even when surrounded by the famous, his is often the lone voice worth listening to.

Many readers of this magazine obviously know Jenkins for his incomparable body of work as a sportswriter and novelist, golf being his most prolific subject. For all the unworthy authors and cheesy narratives our game has produced, good books are what made Jenkins a superstar. About half of his 16 titles became best-sellers, and from his first effort as a sports fictionist (Semi-Tough), his acute disregard for conventional parameters meant he had a corner of the market all to himself.

His text is noisy and profane, the plots simple but seductive. Jenkins writes sports the way it is talked about in saloons. In Dead Solid Perfect, which hit shelves in 1974, he turned up all the usual dials to produce the brassiest, bawdiest tale in the history of golf literature. Loaded with chuckles from start to finish, the story of journeyman tour pro Kenny Lee Puckett doubles as a thinly veiled indictment of the modern game's money-first mentality—a precious digression from the growing stack of mystical tomes and Golf in the Kingdom knockoffs.

Now 77, Jenkins recently passed Joe DiMaggio by attending his 57th consecutive Masters. The man is running out of things to accomplish, which should fast-forward his legacy to the World Golf Hall of Fame—but also raises questions regarding eligibility standards and qualifications. Should the WGHOF limit inductions to players only? Legendary essayist Bernard Darwin was enshrined in 2005; journalists/promoters Herb Graffis (1977) and Bob Harlow (1988) were grandfathered into the new Hall when it moved to St. Augustine, Fla., nine years ago.

Herbert Warren Wind, whose writing style was as eloquent as Jenkins' is blunt, is as deserving as anyone who didn't make a career out of parking long irons 10 feet below the hole. He's not in, nor is longtime CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian, whose impact on how we watch the game can't be measured in a sentence or two. There are any number of non-media types who fall into the same category: Difference makers, the best in the business at what they did but unlikely to receive serious consideration unless the WGHOF clarifies its agenda.

USGA executive director David Fay was recently named to the Hall's executive board, meaning the issue will no longer go unattended. "I was pretty amazed to learn Cooperstown doesn't have a single writer or broadcaster," Fay says, referring to the Baseball Hall of Fame, widely recognized as the best of the shrines. "That has taken some wind out of my sails. I'm with you. I want to see Dan get in. I want to see Wind get in."

Although baseball does recognize media excellence with awards named after Ford C. Frick and J.G. Taylor Spink, those recipients are not considered Hall of Fame members. They get a plaque and go to the ceremony, but they're not accorded space in the same wing as Willie Mays, which makes sense. The problem here is that the WGHOF has set a precedent by honoring several non-golfers, plus others who weren't Hall-of-Fame level players but served the game in another key capacity, such as former USGA and PGA Tour boss Joseph Dey.

Knowing Jenkins as I do—he's far more of an idol to me than a confidant—I don't suppose for a minute he cares all that much either way. In what might serve as a crummy imitation of his prose, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an avid golf fan who has become engrossed in his work. Like the Merry Mex himself, Jenkins has all the shots and has never backed away from anyone. A bust in St. Augustine would be a nice touch, a fitting end to a stellar career, but then, the old man would probably write another novel, this one about some warhorse wordsmith who missed his Hall of Fame induction because he was canoodling some broad named Mimi Whatnot.

Either way, Jenkins is a 15-time major champion in my profession, a guy other writers love because he keeps it simple but takes it deep. When you're one of the best who ever lived at what you do, when you make people laugh and get them to think, you've earned a spot on the ballot. From there, let the votes fall where they will.