ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Dan Jenkins only wanted to be a sports writer, even if that meant turning down the best player he ever saw.
Jenkins told the story in 2012 when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He was only the third writer enshrined, and the first “to be taken in as a vertical human.” He never took any occasion too seriously, and readers laughed because so much of it was true.
Years ago, Jenkins was playing with his hero, Ben Hogan, at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, when Hogan offered to train him three days a week for four months. Hogan figured that would be enough for Jenkins to qualify for the U.S. Amateur.
“And I said, ‘Ben, I’m flattered and I appreciate that, and I’m embarrassed to have to turn down an offer of free golf lessons from the greatest player in the world, but I just want to be a sports writer. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be,’” Jenkins said that night.
Jenkins recalled the cold stare, the long pause and eventually a smile from Hogan who told him, “Well, keep working at it.”
Jenkins did that, too, right up until he died Thursday night at age 89.
He saw his first major in the 1941 U.S. Open when he was 11. He covered the first of 231 major championships in the 1951 Masters when he was still at TCU, working for the Fort Worth Press under the late, great Blackie Sherrod. He wrote 23 books, including best-sellers like “Semi-Tough” and “Dead Solid Perfect.”
He started on a standard typewriter. He finished on Twitter.
Along the way, he reshaped American sports writing with words formulated by acerbic observations.
He wrote what others only thought.
“He defined not just a generation of golf writers, but he defined the sport,” Jerry Tarde, the editor-in-chief at Golf Digest said Friday evening. “He taught us how to write golf, talk golf, smoke golf, drink golf. He just created the modern language of golf. He made it fun.”
Jenkins worked for the Fort Worth Press and Dallas Times-Herald, and he rose to stardom at Sports Illustrated with his two passions, golf and college football.
He lived for a short time in Ponte Vedra Beach, where he got his first taste of Florida football. This was before Steve Spurrier became head coach, before the mighty Gators had won so much as an SEC title. “They have the attitude of Alabama and the accomplishments of Wake Forest,” Jenkins said.
In golf, no one was safe, especially if they didn’t have the pedigree of Hogan or Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. Jenkins never got the chance to know Tiger Woods the same way. The idea of a dinner, on or off the record, was met by “We have nothing to gain” from Woods’ agent.
Jack Nicklaus was out of the country Friday and still weighed in on a writer he said could make him laugh “even when he wasn’t trying.”
“Golf lost a great friend in Dan Jenkins,” Nicklaus said. “Like more great friends — those who know just how to make you smile, laugh and entertain you — Dan was able to do that through his writing. … One thing you always knew is that Dan could be trusted. He never sacrificed accuracy for a good laugh.”
There were plenty of laughs, at least for the readers.
Ernie Els says that Jenkins “was not that nice to me,” without mentioning what was written. No matter. The Big Easy has big perspective. He says he read Jenkins often and referred to him as an “absolute legend.”
“In your world, he must have been a Jack Nicklaus,” Els said to a group of reporters at Bay Hill. “What a sense of humor. What a gift to write. It feels like the last couple of years, he was on us a little. His favorite generation was the Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer era. I can’t hold that against him. I’m also a fan of that generation. But what a guy. What a big loss for journalism. Our generation, we just missed him.”
If not for Tarde, another generation might have missed him, too.
Jenkins was ushered out at Sports Illustrated in 1984 when Tarde hired him late in the year, with some skepticism. Jenkins was 54. Some thought his best days were behind him. More than 30 years later, Jenkins was still going strong.
Tarde said Jenkins’ wife, June, felt as though the magazine “threw us a life preserver.”
“In fact, he threw us one,” Tarde said. “He was a magnet for talent. I don’t know if I was smart enough to know it at the time, but I very quickly learned that when Dan Jenkins was on your team, a lot of people wanted to be on that team. Dave Marr, Alister Cooke, Tom Brokaw, a lot of the greats of our lifetime — not just in golf or sports — wanted to hang with him. And we all got smarter.”
He began writing for Golf Digest in 1985, and in his second year with the magazine, watched Nicklaus charge to a 65 to win the Masters for a sixth time at age 46. Jenkins later recalled several writers freezing over a story that big. Tarde recalls a smile on Jenkins’ face as he began writing what he thought, with seemingly little effort.
His opening line:
“If you want to put golf back on the front pages again and you don’t have a Bobby Jones or a Francis Ouimet handy, here’s what you do: You send an aging Jack Nicklaus out in the last round of the Masters and let him kill more foreigners than a general named Eisenhower.”
Jenkins was feted at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine for publishing, “Jenkins at the Majors: Sixty Years of the World’s Best Sports Writing, from Hogan to Tiger.” He had another decade ahead of him. His first major was Hogan beating Skee Riegel. His last major was Patrick Reed beating Rickie Fowler.
It’s a record unlikely to be touched.
“I never wanted to do anything else,” Jenkins said at the 2009 PGA. “So I wasn’t going anywhere.”