This American Original
Photo by Dom Furore
I grew up reading Dan Jenkins, and it shaped my life. His way with words led me and many others to a career in sports journalism. He taught us how to talk golf, write golf, drink golf, smoke golf. Mostly he taught us how to be funny, and if you can't be funny, be fast, but preferably be both.
One of the luckiest days of my career was walking into a Manhattan restaurant called Juanita's in the fall of 1984 and walking out with Jenkins as a contributing editor. He owned the place, just like he owned golf writing. With Dan on our staff, Golf Digest attracted the best and smartest talent to our pages.
We were all lucky to know Dan Jenkins.
David Marr and Alistair Cooke and George Plimpton hung out at our house and came to our parties. So did class and style.
“Dan is irreplaceable as a writer, wit, friend,” Tom Brokaw emailed me. “For all his celebrity, Dan was the old-school sports scribe—filled with lore, always approachable, always original, never took himself too seriously. God bless this American original.”
Dan lived in a penthouse in New York on “Park Street,” as he called it; then in a mansion on Ponte Vedra Beach, and finally moved back to the ancestral home near his beloved TCU in Fort Worth, where he passed away at 90 on March 7.
“I tend to go to major championships the way Dorothy Kilgallen used to go to murder trials,” Jenkins wrote in Golf Digest in 1986. “I don't cover tournaments anymore. I preside over them.” He ended up presiding over 232 majors in all—68 Masters, 56 PGAs, 63 U.S. Opens and 45 British Opens—a record that will never be matched. He was the most influential sports writer since Homer. And when it comes to lovers of the game, that rattling you hear is all of us moving up a notch in the world ranking.
Who else but Jenkins would be sitting in the press dining lounge at a Ryder Cup when the door flings open and the president and first lady, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, rush over to give him a hug. “I bet the King of England never stopped by to see Bernard Darwin,” said his wingman Bev Norwood.
You'll read elsewhere (on page 74) about Dan's genius as a writer, but as great as he was, I preferred the genius of his company. “I like people who like me,” he was prone to say, except when “rally-killers and point-missers” interrupted the flow of one-liners in hotel bars.
“Hey, I know you,” said one fan. “You're Dan Jenkins.”
“Guilty,” Dan replied.
“You wrote somethin' funny—now what was it?”
Or the time an old acquaintance claimed the bar stool next to Jenkins.
“Shut up, Louise,” he said.
“But, Dan, I haven't said anything,”
“Just savin' time,” he said.
After Greg Norman's collapse in the 1996 Masters, when Norman said if he'd wanted to be a brain surgeon and taken the time to study medicine, ol' Greg could have done it: “Maybe so,” wrote Jenkins, “but he wouldn't operate on this cowboy—not on Sundays, anyhow.” He tried out that line first in a Marriott bar.
Dan had a Texas sense of fairness that seemed to surface at British Opens. Our rental homes—not quite the “stately mansions” described in the R&A brochure—often took the brunt of his hilarious wrath, like the time our bath towels were the size and thread count of handkerchiefs. Another year he got locked out and practically broke his neck climbing through a window in the loo. One owner complained daily that someone was smoking in his no-smoking house. “I'll stop smoking,” Jenkins said, “when you put in the bathroom you owe us.”
He had sworn off playing golf for a decade when he joined Golf Digest and took up the game again to find his scratch handicap had turned into a useful 10. Some of my favorite rounds were played in the company of Dan, Peter Dobereiner, Nick Seitz, Bob Drum and Charley Price at places like TPC Sawgrass, Pinehurst No. 2 and Pine Valley. We played “Dan's Rules” like hit-till-yer-happy off the first tee and “one free throw a side,” which meant you could pick up your ball once per nine holes and toss it toward the hole without counting a stroke—out of bunkers, behind trees, etc. I remember Jenkins throwing his ball from a hazard into the cup at Pine Valley's sixth green when the club dictator, Ernie Ransome, came running out of his house to ask what the hell he was doing. “Just exercising my free throw,” Dan explained.
Jenkins' last golf was in the summer of 2011 at Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md., while following executive editor Mike O'Malley and me around in a cart. When we reached the fifth green, Dan got out of the cart, borrowed a putter, dropped a ball on the back of the green. The hole was about 40 feet away on the front. He stroked it, double-breaking, into the center.
“That's it,” he said, “my last hole.”
And for this American original, it was.